NASA experiments with 3D printed radiation shields aboard the ISS

NASA has announced it is 3D printing radiation shields using the Made in Space 3D printer in order to assess the levels of radiation in space.

The shields have been implemented aboard the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) which is currently docked on the International Space Station (ISS). The expandable module just passed its first year aboard the ISS as it completes a two-year testing period. Bigelow Aerospace, based in Las Vegas, has been working in collaboration with NASA to provide an alternative in-space habitat and the BEAM’s testing period will evaluate the suitability of the softer material system.

The white hemispherical 3D printed shield aboard the BEAM. Photo via NASA.
The white hemispherical 3D printed shield aboard the BEAM. Photo via NASA.

Radiation shielding

The BEAM is expected to improve radiation shielding in comparison to the other metallic structures that form the ISS. Beginning in April, the astronauts aboard the ISS are experimenting with the levels of radiation the BEAM is exposed to.

The experiment will compare the use of 3D printed hemispherical shields deployed around the Radiation Environment Monitors (REM) sensors. The first shield used by the astronauts is 1.1 mm thick and will subsequently be replaced by thicker shields of 3.3mm and 10mm to fully understand the effects of the shield. Only one sensor will be given the shields, as the other will be used to provide comparison readings. By performing these tests, NASA hopes to evaluate the use of radiation shields and the ability of the BEAM to protect against radiation for deeper space exploration missions.

For these goals, NASA is also encouraging private sector companies to submit proposals for a Fab Lab in space.

Artist's conception of the BEAM attached to the ISS. Image via Bigelow Aerospace.
Artist’s conception of the BEAM attached to the ISS. Image via Bigelow Aerospace.

Exploring deep space

Having launched aboard Space X’s Falcon 9 last April, Bigelow’s expandable module intends to prove its suitability for further exploration missions. For such deep space missions resisting radiation is paramount as radiation levels will increase. The ongoing experiment hopes to understand the BEAM’s capabilities and the general threat of radiation in greater detail.

In addition to the BEAM, Bigelow is also developing a concept for an expandable space station. The system would be beneficial as it could be launched as a smaller payload and then expanded. Reducing the space and weight of a payload is vital when launching into space and addressing this, Made in Space has looked at building in space using its 3D printer.

Made in Space’s Archinaut system is a concept to create large-scale structures in space and could be used to facilitate the creation of a new space station without having to launch large structures from earth. Texan company, Axiom Space intends to create the first commercial space station and have partnered with Made in Space to help fabricate the system.

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Featured image shows the BEAM prototype docked and expanded on the ISS. Photo via Bigelow Aerospace.