We may not be mining asteroids in space quite yet, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t companies ready to capitalize on such a prospect. And asteroid mining company Planetary Resources is ready to show the world just what’s possible when the new space industry takes off. Given the number of space-based projects utilizing 3D printing, like Enterprise in Space’s 3D printed spacecraft and NASA’s plans for space-printed drones, it’s no surprise that Planetary Resources has used 3D printing to do so. At CES, today, the asteroid mining firm displayed a part that was 3D printed from alien metal. First, the Planetary Resources took a meteorite that landed in Argentina during prehistoric times and processed it using plasma, converting the rock into metallic powder. The firm then utilized 3D Systems’ newly released ProX DMP 320 direct metal printer to create a 3D printed object, with Planetary Resources CEO Chris Lewicki telling Engadget, “We knew that one of the key technologies for lowering the cost of exploring space and building things in space was 3D printing.” The part is a small model of a spacecraft component from the Arkyd ship that the company is currently testing.
Lewicki understands that 3D printing in space will be an essential part of space manufacturing, saying, “Instead of manufacturing something in an Earth factory and putting it on a rocket and shipping it to space, what if we put a 3D printer into space and everything we printed with it we got from space?” This actually something that both NASA and Made In Space are pursuing, but, with Planetary Resources’ goals of mining asteroids, the firm would also have access to the raw materials for space printing. Lewicki elaborates, “There are billions and billions of tons of this material in space. Everyone has probably seen an iron meteorite in a museum, now we have the tech to take that material and print it in a metal printer using high energy laser. Imagine if we could do that in space.”
3D printing on Earth, however, is completely different from printing in the vacuum of space. Made In Space has already demonstrated the ability to 3D print in a vacuum with extrusion technology, but laser sintering has a different set of requirements, with Lewicki saying, “How do you get [the printed object] to stay in place while it’s being printed? How do you get the powder to stay in place? If they are able to tackle this technology, not only would 3D printing prevent the need to ship many objects to space aboard a rocket, but they wouldn’t have to ship the raw materials, either.
So far, Planetary Resources has already launched a satellite into space, with plans to launch two more this year. Additionally, they hope to send what they call an “infrared Earth imager” into space to scan space objects for resources. Together with the efforts of other new space companies, we’re starting to see that humanity’s work beyond Earth has only just begun.