The long-running NASA challenge to create a 3D printed space habitat is now launching the third phase of the competition.
NASA is encouraging innovation by launching a series of public challenges to overcome difficult technical problems. The theory is that small, unencumbered teams can work out solutions more efficiently than, say, a big bureaucratic institution like NASA. And this is often true.
This particular competition hopes to develop, or at least prove feasible, the notion of using 3D printing technology to construct a usable human habitat on other worlds using in-situ materials. By doing so, a habitat’s cost would no longer require expensive bulk shipment of building supplies from Earth.
It’s certainly a very ambitious goal, and as such NASA has chopped the challenge into several phases. The first two were relatively modest. The initial phase involved simply concepts on paper, but the second and most recently completed phase involved using actual equipment to print very simple objects. This was actually accomplished by a couple of ingenious teams earlier this year.
But now we’re on the third phase, the most challenging yet. This is the task:
On-Site Habitat Competition (Phase 3) – focuses on autonomous 3Dprinting of a subscale habitat design (conducted at the head-to-head competition), using indigenous materials combined with recyclables, or indigenous materials alone.
The Phase 3 competition is structured with three Construction Levels which lead to future construction of a full-scale habitat. The first Construction Level involves printing a foundation. The second Construction Level brings the additional challenge of printing walls with penetrations (to simulate windows etc.) while providing a water-tight sealed structure. The third construction level culminates with a head-to-head challenge to print a 1:3 subscale (10.32 m2 = 111 ft2) habitat, simplified from the full-scale habitat design.
There are a number of additional technical specifications to constrain the solutions.
In this phase, teams are required to develop technology to actually 3D print a building – a small one – that should clearly demonstrate the viability of the technology proposed.
The results should be very interesting, but as they will take place on Earth – during a head-to-head competition no less – there is no accounting yet for extreme environmental conditions, such very high (or low) ambient temperatures or a vacuum environment. But let’s do just one step at a time.
There is a contemplated phase four, in which teams will be asked to 3D print an entire 93sqm habitat with hatch. That likely won’t take place until 2020 or beyond.
Meanwhile, phase three lasts a long time, which makes sense due to the complexity of what’s being asked of the teams. The demonstrations of technology at the head-to-head event won’t take place until April 2019, almost 1.5 years away.
But anything good takes, time, doesn’t it?