For the first time in human history it will be possible to manufacture objects outside of Earth, with the initial microgravity-optimised 3D printer set to launch later this month.
The printer is one of many technologies that NASA is investing in to further long-term space flight, as it will provide the ability to quickly manufacture replacement parts without needing to wait for deliveries from Earth.
NASA astronaut Timothy J Creamer, who spent more than six months aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in 2010, explained the benefits of 3D printing in space.
“I remember when the tip broke off a tool during a mission,” he said. “I had to wait for the next shuttle to come up to bring me a new one.
“Now, rather than wait for a resupply ship to bring me a new tool, in the future, I could just print it.”
The first printer, which received flight certification in April and has since been tested on a number of microgravity flights, will be shipped to the ISS as part of the SpaceX-4 resupply mission in late September.
Developed under a NASA contract by commercial company Made In Space, the printer will be tested aboard the ISS and, if successful, will be used as the basis for a commercial-scale 3D printer known as the Additive Manufacturing Facility, or AMF.
This will serve as a kind of extraterrestrial maker space by not only enabling the quick printing of replacement parts, but also as a research tool that can be used by Earth-based academics to 3D print in space.
Existing communication systems between Earth and the ISS will even enable parts to be designed on the planet before immediately being printed in space.
“This means that we could go from having a part designed on the ground to printed in orbit within an hour to two from start to finish,” explained Niki Werkheiser, 3D print project manager for NASA.
“The on-demand capability can revolutionise the constrained supply chain model we are limited to today and will be critical for exploration missions.”
In the long run, it is hoped that the 3D printer will become a valuable component for space travel and exploration, ultimately furthering our ability to travel between planets.
“NASA is great at planning for component failures and contingencies; however, there’s always the potential for unknown scenarios that you couldn’t possibly think of ahead of time,” said Ken Cooper, the principal investigator for 3D printing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
“That’s where a 3D printer in space can pay off. While the first experiment is designed to test the 3D printing process in microgravity, it is the first step in sustaining longer missions beyond low-Earth orbit.”