April 14, 2016

NASA NIAC project to place 3D printers on near earth asteroids

Project RAMA, Reconstituting Asteroids into Mechanical Automata, has been designed to leverage the advancing trends of additive manufacturing (AM) and in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) to enable asteroid rendezvous missions in which a set of technically simple robotic processes convert asteroid elements into very basic versions of spacecraft subsystems (GNC, Propulsion, Avionics). Upon completion, the asteroid will be a programmed mechanical automata carrying out a given mission objective; such as relocation to an Earth-Moon libration point for human rendezvous. This technique will create an affordable and scalable way for NASA to achieve future roadmap items for both the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) and the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) such as Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), New Frontiers Comet Surface Sample Return, and other Near Earth Object (NEO) applications. It is estimated that an order of magnitude increase in NEO targets can be explored for the same mission cost with the RAMA approach compared to the SOA Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) architecture by removing the need to launch all spacecraft subsystems and instead converting the asteroid into them in-situ. Assuming the development trends continue for industry based AM methods as well as NASA and industry investments in ISRU capabilities, Project RAMA will create a space mission architecture capable of achieving the aforementioned NASA goals within a 20-30 year time frame. Furthermore, as described in the proposal, the identified study path will provide insight into near term Mission 'Pull' technologies worth investment in order to create the development roadmap for the proposed 'Push' technologies for achieving NASA's long term strategic goals.

Made In Space, Inc. is an American-based company, specializing in the engineering and manufacturing of three-dimensional printers for use in microgravity. Headquartered in Mountain View, California on Moffett Field, Made In Space's 3D printer (Zero-G Printer) was the first manufacturing device in space.

They have deployed the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF).

The Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) is a permanent manufacturing facility on the ISS, providing hardware manufacturing services. AMF is twice the size of it’s predecessor 3D printer. The ability to manufacture on the ISS enables on-demand repair and production capability, as well as essential research for manufacturing on long-term missions. AMF allows for immediate repair of essential components, upgrades of existing hardware, installation of new hardware that is manufactured, and the manufacturing capability to support commercial interests on the ISS.

Additive manufacturing is the process of building a part layer-by-layer, with an efficient use of the material. The process leads to a reduction in cost, mass, labor and production time. The ISS crew would be able to utilize the AMF to perform station maintenance, build tools, and repair sections of the station in case of an emergency. The AMF uses an extrusion-based "3D printing" method, which Made in Space has already tested in zero-gravity with successful results. The AMF is capable of producing components from a variety of space-rated composites. This versatility allows for a variety of components and devices to be manufactured, enabling the mentioned uses to be applicable as well as unforeseen uses to be developed.

Using replaceable subassemblies, the AMF is designed so that it could easily be upgraded to add new functionality and manufacturing methods in the future. The AMF is designed to last the entire lifetime of the ISS. The AMF printer is designed to work with a wide range of various extrudable materials including flexible polymers and aerospace grade composites. Designed to operate in an EXPRESS Rack middeck locker, once installed the printer will be easily accessible by crew at all times.

Artists depiction of an asteroid being reconstituted into a mechanical automata.

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