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Berkeley researchers send SpaceCAL 3D printer into space

Testing the limits of AM technology on the Virgin Galactic 07 mission

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According to Berkeley Engineering, a team of researchers, led by Ph.D. student Taylor Waddell, has made significant strides in 3D printing technology – potentially revolutionizing how astronauts manage repairs and fabricate parts during space missions. On June 8, the team’s advanced microgravity 3D printer, SpaceCAL, was successfully tested in space for the first time aboard the Virgin Galactic 07 mission. During the mission, SpaceCAL autonomously printed and post-processed four test parts within 140 seconds using PEGDA, a liquid plastic.

Berkeley researchers send SpaceCAL 3D printer into space - testing the limits of AM technology on the Virgin Galactic 07 mission.
SpaceCAL team members at Virgin Galactic launch site. Left to right: Sean Chu, Jake Nickel, Austin Portinause, Taylor Waddell, and Brian Chung. Image credit: Virgin Galactic.

SpaceCAL utilizes Computed Axial Lithography (CAL), a pioneering 3D printing technology developed at UC Berkeley in 2017. CAL employs light to shape solid objects from a viscous liquid – enabling faster and more complex printing compared to traditional 3D printing methods. This technology’s ability to function effectively in microgravity conditions opens new possibilities for space exploration, such as on-demand manufacturing of spacecraft parts and medical supplies – reducing the need for extensive spare parts on long missions.

The development of CAL technology has been a collaborative effort, involving UC Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and NASA. Hayden Taylor, associate professor of mechanical engineering, along with his team, including Waddell, have expanded the range of materials that CAL can print – from silicones and glass composites to biomaterials. This versatility is crucial for both spacecraft maintenance and crew health – allowing for the production of essential components like O-rings, mechanical mounts, dental replacements, and even skin grafts.

Berkeley researchers send SpaceCAL 3D printer into space - testing the limits of AM technology on the Virgin Galactic 07 mission.
Space shuttle figurine printed by SpaceCAL, floating in microgravity, fully post-processed. Image credit: Taylor Waddell.

Looking ahead, the team aims to advance CAL technology further, with potential applications such as bioprinting human organs in space. A grant from NASA will facilitate experiments on the International Space Station to explore this capability. Waddell and his colleagues also plan to work on developing single objects that support crew health and wellness, such as dental crowns or surgical tools.

The successful space mission and ongoing research exemplify the collaborative efforts of numerous students and the support of organizations like NASA and Virgin Galactic. The Berkeley Space Center envisions fostering such innovations – bridging the gap between laboratory discoveries and real-world applications, thus benefiting space exploration and improving lives on Earth.

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