NASA has tested electron beam freeform fabrication (EBF3) in a weightless environment and may provide the technology to astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS).
|The method, called electron beam freeform fabrication (EBF3), uses an electron beam to melt metals and build objects layer by layer. Such an approach already promises to cut manufacturing costs for the aerospace industry, and could pioneer development of new materials."They get up there, and all they have is time and imagination," said Karen Taminger, the materials research engineer heading the project at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia.|
(Weightless experiments with EBF3)
|Early "vomit comet" tests on NASA's C-9 aircraft showed that EBF3 could work well in a zero-g environment. Taminger and her team managed to build a number of parts that looked exactly the same as parts built on Earth, down to the microstructure scale.Some researchers had predicted that the method would fail to produce anything but "ball bearings," or liquid metallic spheres in zero-g. But the wire feeders successfully deposited the metal layers onto the rotating plate as usual, except for the occasional misaligned wire that would create a growing sphere on its end.|
The big next step for EBF3 involves going to the space station. Taminger has already gotten the device down to a "suitcase style experiment" that fits within a volume of less than eight cubic feet, but still needs funding and a possible slot aboard one of the remaining space shuttle missions. The device could also go up on a contracted NASA flight with the Russian Soyuz rockets, or even a private launch.
Going to the space station means that EBF3 can take advantage of the vacuum environment in space, and sit on an outside rack -- perhaps the "back porch" of Japan's Kibo space lab.
Star Trek fans recall the essential replicator technology that makes long-term space voyages possible. In the fictional series, a replicator can create and recycle objects, synthesize meals on demand, and even allow the crew to shop for and obtain unusual articles that would not ordinarily be stocked on a star ship.
(Star Trek replicator)