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Berkeley’s SpaceCAL: Pioneering 3D Printing in Microgravity

A team from the University of California, Berkeley, made another quantum leap for space exploration by sending a 3D printer into space and managing to prove the capability for on-demand manufacturing in microgravity. Spearheaded by the Ph.D. student Taylor Waddell, the mission was on August 8, and the team was in a pod on the Virgin Galactic 07 mission.

The state-of-the-art 3D printer, named SpaceCAL, shot up into suborbital space aboard the VSS Unity space plane and spent 140 seconds up there. It was during that exceedingly brief window that it was to perform a fully autonomous fabrication sequence to include both the printing and post-processing of four demonstration parts, including models of space shuttles and bench figurines, from a liquid plastic known as PEGDA. “SpaceCAL performed well under microgravity conditions in past tests aboard parabolic flights, but it still had something to prove,” explained Waddell. This was funded through the Flight Opportunities program of NASA and conducted in cooperation with Berkeley Engineering and the Berkeley Space Center in confirming the readiness of the 3D printing technology for initial space travel.

The technology behind SpaceCAL is Computed Axial Lithography (CAL); it was developed in 2017 by a team led by Hayden Taylor, associate professor of mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley, in collaboration with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It uses light to shape solid objects from viscous liquid, greatly expanding the printable geometries, and additionally increasing the 3D printing speed. Most importantly, this approach has been proven to work in microgravity, thereby making it possible to apply this technique out in space.

Waddell began his work in 3D printing as a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and on assignment as a Pathways Engineer at NASA. Intrigued by the native disruptive potential of 3D printing technology, he reached out to Taylor, soon thereafter relocating to Berkeley to join the lab. He worked thousands of hours advancing CAL technology for broader applications.

It is worth noting that, obviously by far, the most outstanding feature of CAL in comparison with other 3D printing technologies is its truly amazing speed and effectiveness: this technology can create parts within only 20 seconds. In this regard, the rapid production capacity is one of the very important issues for crew members, who will be able to quickly prepare a part during emergencies and, as such, reduce the volume of thousands of the same parts held on board maneuvers of a long-duration space vehicle. “You can reduce that upmass, make these missions go faster, and reduce risk by bringing manufacturing technologies with you,” Waddell explained.

Also, CAL enables the possibility of testing the 3D printers in zero gravity. Waddell said, “With CAL, we were able to demonstrate, first on those zero-G missions and now on this spaceflight,  that we can print parts in microgravity that are not possible on Earth,” Waddell said.

CAL has to date printed more than 60 different materials on Earth, from silicones to glass composites and biomaterials. That could be equally important for spacecraft maintenance or the crew’s health. “If your spacecraft is breaking down, you can print O-rings or mechanical mounts or even tools,” Waddell said. In the same manner, CAL may print dental replacements, skin grafts, or additional emergency medical supplies designed for individual astronauts.

Looking ahead, CAL might even be used to print human organs. LLNL has a NASA grant to test that idea on the International Space Station, to print organs in space, and then bring them back to be used. “They’re going to basically do bioprinting on the Space Station,” Waddell said.

It was the June 8 mission that brought to reality years of study by students in Hayden Taylor’s nanoscale manufacturing lab. Waddell emphasized that he couldn’t have done this project without his advisor and fellow student researchers from the very beginning: “This project is built on a team of many, many people,” he said.

Virgin Galactic, too, played a huge part in this. “The team at Virgin Galactic helped us each step of the way, especially during the week preparing for the rocket launch,” Waddell explained. Their support was key in getting this leading-edge project off the ground.

As the Berkeley Space Center advances, with its new 36-acre campus, it hopes to drive innovation and entrepreneurship at the nexus of technologies developed by NASA and UC Berkeley commercialized by private industry. “Imagine a place where private companies can take inventions like those created by Taylor Waddell and make it possible for these important discoveries to break out of the lab and into the public realm,” said Darek DeFreece, a regent emeritus of the University of California and the head of UC Berkeley’s efforts to develop the Berkeley Space Center.

One such important development in the long-term quest to make space missions more efficient and self-sustaining, whose potential benefits could extend far beyond the reaches of space, lies in SpaceCAL.

More for you:

  • Berkeley researchers send 3D printer into space.
  • Another 3D printer has been launched into space, the first by Berkeley researchers.
  • Engineers send 3D printers to space for on-demand parts.
  • Army Women’s Museum, NYPD, Proton, More: Thursday, July 4, 2024 Research.

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