Powerful you have become: a 3D-printed model of Star Wars' Yoda. Photo: Getty
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Made in space: Sending 3D printers into orbit

The ESA wants to test a 3D printer in orbit because this is likely to be the best place and method of building the equipment that will take us further out.

Samantha Cristoforetti is about to enjoy a trip to space. Formerly a fighter pilot in the Italian air force, the 37-year-old Cristoforetti is now a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut. She will blast off with two others, a Russian and an American, in a Russian Soyuz rocket on 23 November. After a few hours, the trio will arrive at the International Space Station (ISS). We can say this with confidence because people have beenS making this trip for very long. This month marks the 14th year of human life in space.

We’re not stopping at the space station, though. One of Cristoforetti’s tasks will be to test the ESA’s new 3D printer, a means to creating future space technology in orbit.

The development of 3D printing is another quiet revolution in progress. Just like a standard inkjet printer for paper documents, it places microscopic drops on to a surface – but these drops are molten plastic or metal. They solidify immediately and another drop can be placed on top of the first layer. Gradually, the drops build up to form an object created with extraordinary precision.

The ESA wants to test a 3D printer in orbit because this is likely to be the best place and method of building the equipment that will take us further out. On earth, firms such as Rolls-Royce are already making plans to use 3D printers to build parts for cars and aeroplanes. Recently, General Electric 3D-printed a fully functioning miniature jet engine. Nasa has created 3D-printed fuel injectors for its rocket engines. Airbus’s experiments with 3D printers have enabled the company to reduce the number of components in its fuel injectors from 250 to two. Manufacturing has never looked so easy – or so promising.

The next step is 3D printing in space. Cristoforetti’s task is to make sure the technology works in the near-absence of gravity. Molten materials form different-shaped drops in microgravity: without a strong pull towards the centre of our planet, they are almost perfect spheres and may not bond to the structure under construction in the same way as on earth. That would create weaker objects. This matters because the future of space colonisation is likely to depend on microgravity manufacturing of satellite parts, sensors, engines and even housing and storage facilities.

With 3D printers on the ISS, the residents can build whatever they need for their next step in space. At the least, this will reduce the payload problems on supply rockets. Although the materials that feed into the printer will have to be delivered, they’ll be in the form of pellets – much easier to pack, weight for weight, than a fully formed part for a satellite.

Once we have become used to it, 3D printing will be as mundane as printing out a high-resolution photograph is to most people now. Similarly, spacefaring was once a dream but is now routine. The world held its breath at the attempt to land a probe on a comet and Commander Chris Hadfield’s tweets and songs broadcast from space caught our attention for a moment but almost no one notices the ISS passing overhead. Even fewer give a moment’s thought to the human beings living up there.

So, we have colonised space. There was no fanfare, no spectacular jamboree. It required remarkable ingenuity, carefully paced progress and determination in the face of scepticism – for a long time, the ISS was described as a white elephant. In the end, though, our scientists, astronauts and engineers just quietly got on with the programme and, thanks to research by the likes of Cristoforetti, we will 3D-print our way to even greater heights. Our time confined to the planet has ended – not with a bang but with a printer. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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The one where she turns into a USB stick: the worst uses of tech in films

The new film Worst Tinder Date Ever will join a long tradition of poorly-thought-through tech storylines.

News just in from Hollywood: someone is making a film about Tinder. What will they call it? Swipe Right, perhaps? I Super Like You? Some subtle allusion to the app’s small role in the plotline? Nope – according to Hollywood Reporterthe film has been christened Worst Tinder Date Ever.

With the exception of its heavily branded title (You’ve Got Gmail, anyone?), Worst Tinder Date Ever follows neatly in the tradition of writers manhandling tech into storylines. Because really, why does it matter if it was a Tinder date? This “rom com with action elements” reportedly focuses on the couple’s exploits after they meet on the app, so the dogged focus on it is presumably just a ploy to get millennial bums on cinema seats.  

Like the films on this list, it sounds like the tech in Worst Tinder Date Ever is just a byword for “modern and cool” – even as it demonstrates that the script is anything but.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Lucy (2014)

Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a young woman who accidentally ingests large quantities of a new drug which promises to evolve your brain beyond normal human limits.

She evolves and evolves, gaining superhuman powers, until she hits peak human, and turns into first a supercomputer, and then a very long USB stick. USB-Lucy then texts Morgan Freeman's character on his fliphone to prove that: “I am everywhere.”

Beyond the obvious holes in this plotline (this wouldn’t happen if someone’s brain evolved; texting a phone is not a sign of omnipotence), USB sticks aren’t even that good – as Business Insider points out: “Flash drives are losing relevance because they can’t compete in speed and flexibility with cloud computing services . . . Flashdrives also can’t carry that much information.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

If you stare at it hard enough, the plotline in the latest Star Wars film boils down to the following: a gaggle of people travels across space in order to find a map showing Luke Skywalker’s location, held on a memory stick in a drawer in a spherical robot. Yep, those pesky flash drives again.

It later turns out that the map is incomplete, and the rest of it is in the hands of another robot, R2-D2, who won’t wake up for most of the film in order to spit out the missing fragment. Between them, creator George Lucas and writer and director JJ Abrams have dreamed up a dark vision of the future in which robots can talk and make decisions, but can’t email you a map.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

In which a scientist uses a computer to find the “precise location of the three remaining golden tickets sent out into the world by Willy Wonka. When he asks it to spill the beans, it announces: “I won’t tell, that would be cheating.


Image: Paramount Pictures. 

The film inhabits a world where artificial intelligence has been achieved, but no one has thought to pull Charlie's poor grandparents out of extreme poverty, or design a computer with more than three buttons.

Independence Day (1996)

When an alien invasion threatens Earth, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) manages to stop it by hacking the alien spaceship and installing a virus. Using his Mac. Amazing, really, that aliens from across the universe would somehow use computing systems so similar to our own. 

Skyfall (2012)

In the Daniel Craig reboot of the series, MI6’s “Q” character (played by Ben Whishaw) becomes a computer expert, rather than just a gadget wizard. Unfortunately, this heralded some truly cringeworthy moments of “hacking” and “coding” in both Skyfall and Spectre (2014).

In the former, Bond and Q puzzle over a screen filled with a large, complex, web shape. They eventually realise it’s a map of subterranean London, but then the words security breach flash up, along with a skull. File under “films which make up their own operating systems because a command prompt box on a Windows desktop looks too boring”.

An honourable mention: Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s “Dilemma” (2009)

Not a movie, but how could we leave out a music video in which Kelly Rowland texts Nelly on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet on a weird Nokia palm pilot?


Image: Vevo.

You’ll be waiting a long time for that response, Kelly. Try Tinder instead.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.