If you judged by the recent buzz in the media world, you might think that 3D printers are good for one thing only: creating untraceable guns, on demand, in the privacy of your home. What makes the 3D printer such an intriguing technology, though, is the extremely broad nature of their applications. They can be used to print replacement auto parts (or maybe, someday, entire vehicles). They are great for cranking out rapid prototypes of new kinds of objects--anything from sculptures to false teeth to custom iPod cases. The focus on gun ethics misses the big picture.
Sure we can give tomorrow's astronauts something better than this. (Credit; NASA/JSC) Two recent developments demonstrate that 3D printers have a more uplifting potential as tools for exploration, by opening up new ways to feed astronauts and build crucial components for satellites and spacecraft. Spin-offs from those efforts could raise the quality of life all across the globe. Strip away all the hype, and 3D printing is fundamentally a simple idea: apply a material to a surface in a controlled pattern, and then keep repeating one layer after another until you have built the desired form, as described in more detail here. Although most 3D printers create objects out of simple structural materials such as plastics or metals, there's no reason why you couldn't build using a different material...like food. Since cooking is already a process of adding ingredients in a controlled manner, it is well suited to the printer treatment. A 3D food printer could work with shelf-stable raw ingredients, combine them in many different ways, and measure out precise mixtures of nutrients--all with very little waste. All of these traits would seem to be useful on a lengthy human space expedition. NASA thinks so, at least: The agency's Small Business Innovation Research office recently gave a $125,000 grant to Systems and Materials Research Corporation (SMRC), a technology-development company in Austin, Texas. Earlier this month, senior engineer Anjan Contractor from SMRC presented the concept at the Humans 2 Mars summit. (Chrisopher Mimms has written up a nice overview.) Contractor suggests that printed foods would be ideal for feeding a crew during the 9-month journey from Earth to Mars. He also has a broader vision that 3D printers could make food production much more efficient all around the world. Printers are great at hiding the raw materials fed into them. Printed food might begin with protein from algae or insects, for instance, and produce a final product that looks just like regular pizza--an example that SMRC is exploring. With an emphasis on the word "might." Although 3D printers are a very real technology, many of their most intriguing applications--including printed food--are still at the prototype or idea stage. But the potential is definitely there. Squinting even farther into the future, Deep Space Industries has plans to deploy a specialized 3D printer to nearby asteroids, using the devices to transform space rocks into "structural parts, fasteners, gears, and other components to repair in-space machinery." As yet, the Virginia-based startup has released little information about its proposed device, which it calls a MicroGravity Foundry, other than providing a sketch and a general functional description.
A MicroGravity Foundry, as envisioned by Deep Space Industries: It eats asteroids and spits out spacecraft parts. (Credit: DSI) Deep Space Industries envisions mining asteroids to build spare parts for spacecraft, to extract rocket fuel, and ultimately to allow the construction of a fleet of solar power satellites in space. The company plans to start small, licensing a technology for the 3D printing of metal objects which it claims is simpler and cheaper than current approaches. The success of that preliminary effort will tell a lot about how much faith to have in Deep Space Industry's grander plans, and about the broader prospects for the commercial exploitation of asteroids. Even if printed food and deconstructed asteroids are not the wave of the future, 3D printers inevitably will influence the next round of space exploration. These devices allow faster development and testing of prototypes for satellites and spacecraft design, and they uncork new and more efficient schemes for fabrication. Not to discount the concerns about the 3D printing of guns; if it can be done, it poses a tricky regulatory and public safety problem. But as with every new technology, to really see its potential you have to turn away from the ground and look up at the stars. Follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell