If deep space exploration is to become a reality, humans will need to be as self-sufficient as possible. Since ordering supplies from Earth will not be practical, astronauts will have to manufacture their own components for equipment and other products through additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing.
But the challenges of “Earth-independent manufacturing” are as vast as space itself. Lack of gravity, differences in time and space scales, and drastic temperature changes could all hamper the process, resulting in wasted materials and unusable parts.
These challenges can be overcome with modeling software created in the lab of Derek Warner, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the College of Engineering, and successfully tested aboard the International Space Station in a collaboration between Cornell , Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), NASA and the ISS US National Laboratory.
The experiment, conducted Jan. 1, was part of an ongoing effort to demonstrate the functionality of the HPE Spaceborne-2 computer, which was launched into space in February 2021 and installed on the space station as the first commercial, state of – a state-of-the-art computer system with artificial intelligence capabilities. The new state-of-the-art computer enables real-time processing of massive amounts of data in space, eliminating the long latency issues and waiting associated with relaying data back to Earth.
Over the past year, astronauts have conducted a series of data-intensive experiments on Spaceborne Computer-2, from processing medical imagery to DNA sequencing. Additive manufacturing was a prime candidate for testing because it’s “absolutely essential for what NASA wants to do with deep space exploration and going to Mars,” according to PhD student Terrence Moran, who designed the software. Cornell.
But even on solid ground, 3D printing can be a fickle process full of trial and error, even for experts who have decades of experience with the technology. These problems only get worse in the unforgiving environment of space. After all, the most common form of 3D printing is powder bed fusion, in which powder is deposited onto a substrate and bonded or fused, which requires gravity. But there are also regular hiccups with the process itself.
“Let’s say you’re in space and you need a role,” Warner said. “If you were to just draw the part or upload a CAD file to your 3D printer and hit print, it probably wouldn’t work, simply because 3D printing isn’t at that level of maturity.” You would need to adjust the printing process and settings, so that the result is successful and you don’t waste your material.
The Cornell Fracture Group, led by Warner, specializes in scientific and engineering research to better understand and predict structural deformation and failure. Using this expertise, Moran has developed modeling software capable of simulating the flow of the 3D printing process for a desired component and whether the result will be high or low quality.
“Previously, this was computationally infeasible due to discrepancies in temporal and spatial scales and high thermal gradients,” Moran said. “So we developed the software with a physics-based model, made it portable and uploaded it to the ISS. It was successfully executed and the results were consistent with the results we had obtained during our research. The timing and everything was the same.
Essentially, modeling is a form of virtual printing, which promises to save time, material and, in combination with Spaceborne Computer-2, digital bandwidth. Not only will the software benefit deep space engineering; it could be an asset much closer to home.
“One of the attractions of 3D printing is that you can manufacture locally,” Warner said. “So the interesting thing about that is that while space may be the most extreme environment, for the military or on oil rigs or other places, it will also be necessary to do the same thing. This demonstrates that it is possible.