The company which sent the first 3D printer into space has made a breakthrough that will allow its printer to work in open space.
Made in Space, which sent its Zero-G printer into orbit last year, has successfully adapted its commercial printer to be able to print in a vacuum.
This paves the way for printing objects outside the International Space Station and also making objects that are bigger than what can be sent into space. This is a crucial step in enabling humans to build brand new structures off of Earth.
Last month the company created completed a round of tests, using a vacuum chamber, which proved that the next generation of 3D printers can operate in the vacuum of space.
“We believe we are as little as 18 months away from incorporating the current designs into on-orbit tests,” said Mike Snyder, Chief Engineer at Made In Space.
“These preliminary tests, combined with our experience with microgravity additive manufacturing, show that the direct manufacturing of structures in space is possible using Made In Space developed technologies.
“Soon, structures will be produced in space that are much larger than what could currently fit into a launch fairing, designed for microgravity rather than launch survivability. Complete structural optimization is now possible in space.”
Last year Made in Space sent the first 3D printer to the International Space Station, where it successfully was used to print a number of items.
While being used on the space station the company says it created 24 parts. These have now been returned to Earth to be tested by scientists.
In the meantime the company has been working on the technology to allow it to print in a vacuum.
“Made In Space tested a modified version of their AMF, with their proprietary vacuum-compatible extrusion heads, and accumulated over a week of testing in a vacuum chamber,” a post on its website said.
“Various specimens were produced using aerospace-grade thermopolymers to test how the deposition process works in the vacuum environment.”
It’s widely believed that 3D printing in space will help us to colonise other planets. This can include sending files to space electronically and allowing astronauts to then print the objects they need.
Earlier this year – in the video above – NASA’s Rob Mueller said that in order to survive in space we need to be able to use 3D printing to make things.
“You send bits and bits into space and you make the parts and obects at the destination, using local materials,” he said.
“We want to 3D print at any destination we go to,” Mueller said. This, in time, will mean Mars, and before this potentially the Moon and even asteroids.
He said being able to create things in space would allow exponential growth in human occupancy outside of Earth.