Self-Sufficiency in Space: New Software Enables 3D Printing on ISS

Cornell University scientists have designed unique computer modeling software that simulates the 3D printing process and successfully tested it aboard the international space station – ushering in a new era for deep space exploration.

For space travel to become a reality, humans will need to be as self-sufficient as possible. Since ordering supplies from Earth won’t be practical, the astronauts will have to fabricate their own components for equipment through additive manufacturing, or 3D printing.

But the challenges for “Earth-independent manufacturing” are as vast as space itself. The lack of gravity, differences in time and spatial scales, and radical changes in temperature could all stymie the process, resulting in wasted material and unusable parts.

Those challenges may be overcome thanks to modeling software created in the lab of Derek Warner, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and successfully tested aboard the ISS as part of a collaboration between Cornell, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), NASA and the ISS U.S. National Laboratory.

The experiment, conducted on Jan. 1, was part of an ongoing effort to demonstrate the functionality of the HPE Spaceborne Computer-2, which was launched to space in Feb. 2021 and installed on the space station as the first commercial, state-of-the-art edge computing system with artificial intelligence capabilities. The new edge computer enables real-time processing of massive amounts of data in space, eliminating the long latency issues, and the waiting, associated with relaying data back and forth to Earth.

Even on solid terrestrial ground, 3D printing can be a fickle process full of trial and error. Those problems are only compounded in the unforgiving environment of space. After all, the most common form of 3D printing is powder bed fusion, in which powder is layered on a substrate and bonded or melted, which requires gravity.

In essence, the modeling is a form of virtual printing, one that 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 allures of 3D printing is that you can manufacture locally,” Warner said. “So the neat thing about this is that, while space might be the most extreme environment, for the military or on oil rigs or other places, there’s also going to be a need for doing the same thing. This demonstrates that it’s possible.”

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