Gerard K. O’Neill’s name might not ring a bell for many of us, but he certainly is one of the most significant names in the world of physics and space sciences. Gerard was an American physicist whose ideologies resonated with the concept of Space Manufacturing and Space Colonization as early as 1969.
He visualized establishment of a space manufacturing facility that would product end products for use in the outer space. Located in a very high orbit as compared to Earth, or on any celestial body, he claimed that the manufacturing facility would be self-sufficient and would be built entirely using materials available on celestial surfaces like lunar soil. When O’Neill presented his novel idea using research papers at different forums, he faced rejection and disapproval as every other world-changing idea did.
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However, in 1975, his paper final featured in the September issue of Physics Today. In the paper, Gerard spoke about the concept of space colonization and how it would help us solve at least five of the most serious problems the world faces. In the paper titled The Colonization of Space, Gerard argues that the concept could help us by “bringing every human being up to a living standard now enjoyed only by the most fortunate; protecting the biosphere from damage caused by transportation and industrial pollution; finding high quality living space for a world population that is doubling every 35 years; finding clean, practical energy sources; preventing overload of Earth’s heat balance.” Little did we know that Gerard’s vision could actually be simplified using another ground breaking technology – 3D Printing.
The Magic of 3D Printing
The 3D printing industry is quickly building on its already impressive reputation. 3D Printing is known to be able to produce anything ranging from automotive parts, plastic plates, prosthetic limbs and even electronic devices, thus disrupting a wide range of industries. Characterized by a slow growth rate over the last three decades, 3D printing has grown from a hobby to a commercial application. 3D printing has now been claimed to be the go-to tool for Space Colonization.
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Since the advent of the 3D print technology, designers and manufacturers have used it to build prototypes. However, recently multiple industries have taken to this novel concept and built actual models and commodities out of various materials. Some suggest that robots could build settlements on surfaces of celestial bodies using the spatial materials available. NASA scientist, Behrokh Khoshnevis has been working on the idea of 3D printed buildings using concrete, and plans to continue researching the idea in space.
‘Contour Crafting’ works the same way as conventional 3D printing works, except that the printers are huge in size and extrude concrete instead of plastic. The CC enabled 3D printer is mounted on an elaborate, six-meter-tall gantry resembling an oversize sawhorse and extrudes layers of concrete sequentially, as per the design directed. Provision for electrical and plumbing conduits is taken care within the hollow wall like structure. Behrokh’s 3D printer is not the only attempt made, however it seems to be the most popular and feasible one.
Nearly 4 printing technologies can be used to print structures in spatial areas. Electron Beam Freeform Fabrication uses electron beams to melt any material into a pool which is then transformed into a structure. Selective Layer Sintering uses a powder feedstock to build structures and assemblies. Fused Deposition Modelling and Fab@home use extrusion using an ejection head like that of a printer to build structures. All these techniques are versatile in terms of applications in which they can be implemented. Moreover, they can work with wide range materials hence making them suitable for outer-space applications. These in-space manufacturing techniques have an upper hand compared to conventional construction techniques. When compared to the current tradition methodology of building structures on the surface of Earth and then transporting them, in-space manufacturing techniques save a lot of human labor.
Moreover, the cost and effort of transporting products of current manufacturing processes is extremely high. In-space manufacturing techniques would require only 3D printers and a mining device to extract material from the celestial surfaces. This eliminates the need to conform to the specifications of the launch vehicle. It also handles the ‘what-if’ scenario in case of any adverse circumstances, as one can print a part or an entire structure as per the requirements. Immediate repair of any damages is not only convenient, but also faster when it comes to Space Manufacturing.
Wastage is eliminated as only the parts and structures needed would be built. Using in-situ fabrication, we not only combat the risky task of pre-planning and pre-fabrication requirements, but also make value out of the space material debris. Using reusable apparatus cuts down on the costs by a massive margin and enables modifications and upgradations of existing structures as per requirements.
As opposed to what one would think about the design of in-space manufactured structures to be homogenously-designed, Behrokh’s device can actually provide room for elegant geometric structures, comparable to some of the most appealing structures built by conventional methods. The astonishing speed at which buildings are ‘printed’, this process can abort wasteful practices of the construction industry. It saves on the large energy requirement for long-distance material transportation and lengthy installation processes, thus reducing carbon emissions. We thus see that 3D printing conforms to all 3 requirements of the economic rationale of a space manufacturing facility as proposed by O’Neill viz. energy, as the 3D printer would be operated on energy sources available at the site like solar energy, materials as there is judicious utilization of available resources at the celestial site and free space.
Owing to large surface areas available, there is provision of establishing large structures as per the requirement and still not worry about transportation.
As we know, every methodology comes with its own set of constraints; 3D printing is not an exception. The first obvious roadblock would be zero gravity. Experiments are on and it is said that 3D printing will be able to smoothly overcome the issue of gravity and in turn convert it to an advantage, as 3D printed building will not have to withstand the gravitation pressure. Uncertainty of the properties of the celestial raw materials would be another glitch as one would not be aware of the consistency, binding properties and other characteristics of the materials available on-site. However, with additive feeds to the materials available on the spatial surfaces, one could bind and strengthen the built structures.
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Technology undoubtedly has appalled us with its ability to do the unimaginable, and Space Colonization using 3D printing is one of the far-fetched human ideas that can well be true. The obvious correlation between these two ground breaking technologies might not only make human settlements in the outer space possible, but also help mankind attain unimaginable success in the field of science.