Nasa contest lets makers 3D print objects in space

Space isn’t just for Nasa engineers and aerospace contractors. The space agency regularly asks makers for help creating new technologies. Its latest project will even let makers use the International Space Station’s 3D printer.

The arm holding Nasa astronaut Greg Chamitoff's chess board attaches to the blue handrail using a Handrail Clamp Assembly. That keeps the chessboard in place, but the chess player...? Source: Nasa

The arm holding Nasa astronaut Greg Chamitoff's chess board attaches to the blue handrail using a Handrail Clamp Assembly. That keeps the chessboard in place, but the chess player...? Source: Nasa

Nasa will award $2,000 to makers with the best designs in the Handrail Clamp Assembly Challenge. Space station astronauts use Handrail Clamp Assemblies, of HCAs, to keep equipment from floating away in the station’s zero-g environment. Nasa wants makers to design 3D-printable versions of the HCA. Astronauts will print the best designs in space for Nasa’s engineers to test here on Earth. Winning designs will combine the most efficient use of the printer with the best physical performance.

Why does Nasa let the public do this? Ten years ago the space agency realized that it lived in a bubble where the same combination of in-house engineers, aerospace contractors, and university researchers took the same approaches to creating similar solutions to the challenges of the day. While these approaches took astronauts to the Moon and sent robots to the edge of the Solar System, Nasa wanted to bring fresh thinking into the space program. It created the Centennial Challenges program in 2005 and gave it an annual $4,000,000 budget to create prize-based competitions. The chance to work with Nasa attracts individual tinkerers, student teams, and small businesses who could never get a traditional Nasa contract.  Winners have even become Nasa contractors. Problems in aviation and space exploration addressed in past challenges range from lunar mining to space elevators to astronaut gloves. [For more background on the Centennial Challenges program, read this Aviation Week article]

Peter Homer designed these space gloves at his dining room table. After winning the Astronaut Glove Challenge twice, he turned Flagsuit LLC into a Nasa contractor. Credit: Flagsuit LLC via Nasa

Peter Homer designed these space gloves at his dining room table. After winning the Astronaut Glove Challenge twice, he turned Flagsuit LLC into a Nasa contractor. Credit: Flagsuit LLC via Nasa

The approach has been so successful that Nasa added smaller-scale competitions to give more individuals a chance to help the space program. 3D printing contests like the Handrail Clamp Assembly Challenge may create even more opportunities for makers. Future astronauts will print new equipment and replacement parts from raw materials rather than carry lockers full of spare parts they may never need. The space station’s 3D printer, created by Silicon Valley startup Made in Space, uses melted plastic to create objects. Nasa’s engineers will compare the mechanical performance and physical properties of these zero-g objects to a set of control objects printed on Earth. The Handrail Clamp Assembly Challenge lets the space agency crowdsource a wider variety of designs.

The 14 objects Nasa and Made In Space printed in the International Space Station. Source: Made In Space

The 14 objects Nasa and Made In Space printed in the International Space Station. Source: Made In Space

Making printable versions of the HCA is an important step in Nasa’s long term efforts to explore space. It may be easier for future astronauts to print new equipment and replacement parts from raw materials than to carry lockers full of spare parts they may never need. Nasa recently installed a 3D printer created by Silicon Valley startup Made In Space. Late last year astronauts printed 13 pre-programmed objects. They also printed a ratchet with a design file emailed from Earth. Engineers will compare the mechanical performance and physical properties of these zero-g objects to a set of control objects printed on Earth. The HCA Challenge extends this experiment to publicly-generated designs that may test the boundaries of zero-g 3D printing. Nasa's education version of the contest, Future Engineers, lets primary and secondary school students print objects in the space station.

By the end of the week Nasa will announce the Future Engineers whose design astronauts will print in the International Space Station. Source: Future Engineers

By the end of the week Nasa will announce the Future Engineers whose design astronauts will print in the International Space Station. Source: Future Engineers

If you want to be a space maker, take a look at these other challenges and contests:

  • Sample Return Robot Challenge - international teams build robots to collect samples from a course that mimics alien terrain.
  • CubeQuest Challenge - design CubeSat satellites that test deep space communications or interplanetary propulsion. The winning designs will ride the Space Launch System’s first flight to the Moon.
  • 20-20-20 Airship Challenge - build an airship that lifts 20 kilograms up 20 kilometers on a 20-hour flight

In college or high school? These contests let you put your engineering skills to the test:

  • Human Exploration Rover Challenge - design a human-powered vehicle that can carry 2 people over an obstacle course that simulates alien terrain
  • Mars Ascent Vehicle Prize - design a system that simulates a Mars sample return mission by collecting a sample, launching it on a rocket, and landing it on Earth (universities, middle/high schools)
  • Pisces Robotic International Space Mining Competition - design a robot that navigates a Moon yard, digs up simulated lunar soil, and carries it to a collector bin (universities)
  • Robotic Mining Competition - design a robot that navigates a Mars yard, digs up simulated Martian soil, and carries it to a collector bin (universities)
  • Student Launch - build a high-performance rocket that carries a scientific payload to a one mile altitude (universities, middle/high schools)