3D Printing in Space
The Weight Equation
Following on from my thesis (which can be found here) one opportunity which I have continued researching is the potential of additive manufacturing (3D printing) in becoming the foundation for future development and advancement in space. Currently the main limitation on human exploration of space is The Weight Equation or put simply, the cost per Kg of material lifted from somewhere on the surface of the Earth to a destination in space. This has historically been prohibitively expensive, for example, the International Space Station is estimated to weigh roughly 925k pounds or 419.6k Kg. 1
As the ISS is located in low earth orbit (LEO) we could use a reasonable estimate of $10,000 per pound lifted using modern technology (though when much of the ISS was put into orbit that number was far higher) meaning that just getting the ISS or something of equivalent size to LEO would cost roughly $10 billion. This is a financial figure that is prohibitively expensive for many nations let alone private enterprises.
A way to work around this limitation is to instead build and place manufacturing in orbit (or on a celestial body such as the moon) and to utilize resources that will be harvested beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. A number of private ventures have been established for the purposes of capturing and harvesting asteroids and other space borne bodies. However, at the time of writing this blog I have only been able to find one 3D printing-based start-up, Made in Space, who are based out of the NASA Ames Research Center in California. In November of 2014 they had an additive manufacturing facility to the ISS as a proof of concept, and as it was seen as successful, have followed it up with a commercial offering in 2016. 2, 3
Meanwhile NASA, China, and private companies have been exploring ways in which to redirect the course of an asteroid into low earth orbit. Using estimates from NASA and Planetary Resources we can identify a price range for capturing and moving an asteroid into LEO weighing roughly 500k Kg at between $1.4 billion (NASA’s budget) and $2.6 billion (Planetary Resource’s projection). Using our calculations from earlier that would be $5 billion (500k KG * 10k) worth of material in transport costs alone. Meanwhile it is projected that asteroids of this nature contain a large amount of rare earth metals such as those in the platinum family, leading that price tag to be closer to the hundreds of billions potentially. (for the math behind this feel free to check out page 25 of my thesis) 4, 5
Until the infrastructure of a more cost-effective way of transporting material from the Earth to various points in space is built, then from a basic economics standpoint it makes a great deal of sense for companies to explore opportunities to capture asteroids and other celestial objects to harvest their resources and in turn utilize those resources via additive manufacturing in space. While the sunk costs will be high, there is also a high probability of a potential return in the hundreds of billions (very conservatively). As such, I predict will create a new, very attractive market within the next decade.
Thanks for reading and if you have any questions or any areas you’d like for me to follow up about space-based manufacturing, costs and infrastructure, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment.
1 - https://www.space.com/8876-international-space-station-numbers.html
2 - https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/1115.html
3 - http://madeinspace.us/
4 - https://www.space.com/15405-asteroid-mining-feasibility-study.html
5 - http://spacenews.com/nasa-moves-ahead-with-asteroid-redirect-mission-despite-cost-increase/