NASA sends 3D printers to the ISS for Lunar Regolith and extra

One of the reasons the ISS is still alive is because it provides a unique environment for testing that is not available anywhere on Earth or off. Many scientific experiments want to use this uniqueness. This week a new set of experiments was delivered to the ISS aboard a Northrop Grumman Cygnus supply ship. They range from 3D printers to a high school science experiment with mold, and now they all have the option to take advantage of the ISS’s microgravity environment.

The 3D printer experiment will most likely influence one of NASA’s great advances – the Artemis program. The space station that serves as the backbone of this program would benefit tremendously from a 3D printer that uses regolith as its printing material. This is exactly what the Redwire Regolith Print (RRP) project aims to demonstrate.

An image of the RRP slated to begin testing regolith simulant as 3D printing feedback on the ISS.
Credit – Redwire Space

RRP will work in conjunction with ManD, a 3D printer already housed on the ISS, and will consist of several extruders and print beds specially designed for use with Regolith. The project will initially prove that it is even capable of using regolith as a raw material. If successful, the strength of the printed materials is tested against a number of ASTM standards used to characterize 3D printing materials.

One thing that RRP won’t be printing into muscle in space, but that’s the focus of a second experiment that was aboard the Cygnus ship – Cardinal Muscle. This experiment seeks to use accelerated muscle breakdown in weightlessness as a testing ground for sarcopenia – the more traditional muscle breakdown experienced on Earth with age. Cardinal Muscle leaders hope that the use of the microgravity environment could accelerate the development of potential drugs to alleviate this long-term condition on Earth.

Images of the heat shields used in the CREEP experiment.
Credit – University of Kentucky

The return to Earth is the focus of a third experiment in the cohort – the Kentucky Re-Entry Probe Experiment (CREEP). CREEP is essentially an inexpensive way to collect flight data for a thermal protection system (TPS), such as is used on any ship planning a controlled re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. Although CREEP is not a protective system, researchers can inexpensively collect vital data that could help develop a better TPS, which is extremely important to the continued viability of space exploration.

Another necessary feature of space exploration is thermal management, to which the Flow Boiling and Condensation Experiment (FBCE) is dedicated – another experiment that finds its way to the ISS. Thermal management systems come in two flavors – a “single-phase” system in which a coolant only undergoes a single phase change (i.e., liquid to gas), and a “two-phase” system in which the coolant instead has two phase changes (i.e., solid to liquid and liquid) to gas). Little is known so far about how a two-phase system would work in microgravity – a hole the FBCE wants to fill.

Technical drawing of the FBCE experiment.
Credit – Issam Mudawar

Removing CO2 is at the top of the list, at least for crewed missions. This is where the Four Bed CO2 Scrubber hopes to shine. This new model is an upgrade of the existing CO2 scrubber in the ISS and has improved mechanics and a new, novel sorbent to catch the CO2 emitted by the resident astronauts. It can either expel the CO2 outside of this station or use it to create water.

Water, the key to all life as we know it, is a necessary part of the final experiment. This student study, known as “Blob,” enables children ages 10-18 to track a slime mold while it goes about its business on the ISS. The mold known as Physarum polycephalum is capable of learning and adapting what it has to do in order to survive in its new weightless environment. His every move is also tracked on video which hopefully creates some amazing videos of the mold moving slowly across its growth media.

Image of the blob used in experiments to show how unicellular organisms react in weightlessness.
Credit – CNES

No matter how slow it goes through its media, it will still race at over 4 miles per second on board the ISS. With this latest series of experiments, the space station continues to prove its usefulness and maintains its status as one of the most unique places for science in the solar system.

Learn more:
NASA – NASA Science, Cargo launches on Northrop Grumman Resupply Mission
NASA – Overview of Northrop Grumman’s 16th Commercial Resupply Mission
NG-Meet NG-16: The SS Ellison Onizuka – Northrop Grumman will deliver a Cygnus cargo ship to the space station today. How to watch live

Mission statement:
Onlookers watch the launch of the Cygnus supply vehicle on August 10, 2021 at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.
Credit – NASA / Joel Kowsky

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