Developments in 3D printing technology could make off-planet manufacturing a reality sooner rather than later. Stuart Nathan reports
Space, as Captains Kirk and Picard so memorably said, is the final frontier. And not just for exploration. As plans for human presence in the solar system become more developed, researchers are increasingly looking for ways to expand hitherto earthbound areas of human activity into space. As a recent conference at Coventry’s Manufacturing Technology Centre explored, one area is manufacturing.
A very specific area of manufacturing is being studied: building spacecraft and items that human explorers might need on their missions (whether they last five years or even longer), such as shelters, habitats and tools, in space. The first stages of this are already beginning to be investigated: in-orbit assembly of spacecraft had notable success in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the construction of the International Space Station (ISS) from modules transported by Russian launchers and the Space Shuttle, and assembled either by autonomous docking manoeuvres or astronaut crews.