MIT's new in-space manufacturing method requires only a silicone skin and resin
A new experiment does away with one of the biggest hindrances manufacturers face here on Earth — Gravity.
MIT scientists are collaborating with NASA to build test parts in space as part of a research program aimed at unleashing the full potential of microgravity manufacturing.
The new process fills a flexible silicone skin with liquid resin until it resembles the required part, a report from PopSci reveals. The same manufacturing method wouldn't be possible on Earth due to the effects of gravity.
Moreover, both the skin and the resin are commercially available, off-the-shelf products, meaning this particular style of space manufacturing could go mainstream.
A new in-space manufacturing method
Scientists from MIT are testing a new method aboard the International Space Station (ISS). To do so, they are utilizing a metal box that is roughly the size of a desktop PC tower. On the interior, a nozzle injects resin into the silicone skins, which are built in the shape of the required part.
The resin is sensitive to ultraviolet light, so the final step is for a flash of UV light to stiffen the resin, setting the entire part into a solid structure. Once set, scientists can remove the silicone skin, leaving only the finished part inside.
The metal box used for the process was launched to the ISS on November 23. It is scheduled to spend 45 days aboard the orbital station before being sent back to Earth. The plan is for the box to return manufactured parts back to Earth for MIT researchers to analyze. If they are happy with the results, they will likely run a follow-up experiment aboard the ISS, during which they'll build more complex parts. Finally, they wish to experiment by manufacturing parts in open space outside the ISS.
Drastically cutting the cost of space missions
Microgravity has long been known to provide clear benefits when it comes to potential manufacturing applications, and several organizations are, therefore, working on new in-space manufacturing solutions.
One of these, ThinkOrbital, is designing a platform to build parts in space and tackle the growing space debris problem. What's more, it could be compatible with SpaceX's in-development fully reusable Starship rocket.
Ultimately, the MIT scientists believe their method could eventually be used to manufacture a whole host of parts required for the space station and space exploration without relying on any materials from Earth — other than resin and silicone.
This would drastically cut the cost of space missions and significantly reduce reliance on costly cargo missions. Instead of lifting heavy parts into space when required, future astronauts could keep a catalog of reference shapes for the silicone molds and enough resin supplies. All they'd have to do when the need arises would be to allow the box to work its magic.
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