How 3D Printers Could Feed Astronauts and Mine Asteroids

By Corey S. Powell | May 22, 2013 4:25 pm

If you judged by the recent buzz in the media world, you might think that 3D printers are good for one thing only: creating untraceable guns, on demand, in the privacy of your home. What makes the 3D printer such an intriguing technology, though, is the extremely broad nature of their applications. They can be used to print replacement auto parts (or maybe, someday, entire vehicles). They are great for cranking out rapid prototypes of new kinds of objects–anything from sculptures to false teeth to custom iPod cases. The focus on gun ethics misses the big picture.

Space Food

Sure we can give tomorrow’s astronauts something better than this. (Credit; NASA/JSC)

Two recent developments demonstrate that 3D printers have a more uplifting potential as tools for exploration, by opening up new ways to feed astronauts and build crucial components for satellites and spacecraft. Spin-offs from those efforts could raise the quality of life all across the globe.

Strip away all the hype, and 3D printing is fundamentally a simple idea: apply a material to a surface in a controlled pattern, and then keep repeating one layer after another until you have built the desired form, as described in more detail here. Although most 3D printers create objects out of simple structural materials such as plastics or metals, there’s no reason why you couldn’t build using a different material…like food.

Since cooking is already a process of adding ingredients in a controlled manner, it is well suited to the printer treatment. A 3D food printer could work with shelf-stable raw ingredients, combine them in many different ways, and measure out precise mixtures of nutrients–all with very little waste. All of these traits would seem to be useful on a lengthy human space expedition. NASA thinks so, at least: The agency’s Small Business Innovation Research office recently gave a $125,000 grant to Systems and Materials Research Corporation (SMRC), a technology-development company in Austin, Texas.

Earlier this month, senior engineer Anjan Contractor from SMRC presented the concept at the Humans 2 Mars summit. (Chrisopher Mimms has written up a nice overview.) Contractor suggests that printed foods would be ideal for feeding a crew during the 9-month journey from Earth to Mars. He also has a broader vision that 3D printers could make food production much more efficient all around the world. Printers are great at hiding the raw materials fed into them. Printed food might begin with protein from algae or insects, for instance, and produce a final product that looks just like regular pizza–an example that SMRC is exploring.

With an emphasis on the word “might.” Although 3D printers are a very real technology, many of their most intriguing applications–including printed food–are still at the prototype or idea stage. But the potential is definitely there.

Squinting even farther into the future, Deep Space Industries has plans to deploy a specialized 3D printer to nearby asteroids, using the devices to transform space rocks into “structural parts, fasteners, gears, and other components to repair in-space machinery.” As yet, the Virginia-based startup has released little information about its proposed device, which it calls a MicroGravity Foundry, other than providing a sketch and a general functional description.

MGF

A MicroGravity Foundry, as envisioned by Deep Space Industries: It eats asteroids and spits out spacecraft parts. (Credit: DSI)

Deep Space Industries envisions mining asteroids to build spare parts for spacecraft, to extract rocket fuel, and ultimately to allow the construction of a fleet of solar power satellites in space. The company plans to start small, licensing a technology for the 3D printing of metal objects which it claims is simpler and cheaper than current approaches. The success of that preliminary effort will tell a lot about how much faith to have in Deep Space Industry’s grander plans, and about the broader prospects for the commercial exploitation of asteroids.

Even if printed food and deconstructed asteroids are not the wave of the future, 3D printers inevitably will influence the next round of space exploration. These devices allow faster development and testing of prototypes for satellites and spacecraft design, and they uncork new and more efficient schemes for fabrication.

Not to discount the concerns about the 3D printing of guns; if it can be done, it poses a tricky regulatory and public safety problem. But as with every new technology, to really see its potential you have to turn away from the ground and look up at the stars.

Follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

 

 

  • JonFrum

    I don’t get the printed food thing. 3D printing generates an object in a particular shape. That’s all. And protein from algae or insects will look like powder – can’t people in space mix ingredients together? There’s a difference between a 3D printer and an automated food preparer.

    • coreyspowell

      [author] In this case, the idea is to use a 3D printer *as* an automated food preparer. In principle there are several big advantages of using a 3D printer as opposed to just having astronauts mix ingredients in bags.

      The device could create precise portion sizes with controlled nutritional value. It could be linked to automated health reports to adjust diet or incorporate drugs as needed. It could create meals with very little waste, minimal packaging, and no need for preparation. And by mixing and layering ingredients with high accuracy, it could synthesize appealing meals (pizza being the test case) that would be difficult or impossible to create manually: in other words, to take those powders and produce an end product that looks and tastes nothing like powdered nutrients.

      All of this is still a bit of a pipe dream. So far, printed foods are barely at the prototype stage. But *if* it is possible to effectively mix flavors and ingredients using a 3D printer, the result could be a very efficient way to create on-demand meals customized to each astronaut’s tastes and real-time dietary needs.

  • Arthur Smith

    When is McDonalds going to latch onto this idea?

    • Steve

      where do you think nasa got the idea from!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jacob.wadsworth.961 Jacob Wadsworth

    The idea of 3D printing is quite new and it still has a lot of room for improvements and discoveries. The important thing is that it works in surprising ways. Every now and then, there will be new innovations to 3D printing that is very useful. Breakthroughs are even possible especially in the medical field. – http://www.matterhackers.com/

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About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.

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