September 30, 2013
NASA Wants To Launch 3D Printer Into Space
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Three-dimensional printing technology is arguably the biggest non-Internet phenomenon of the 21st century thus far, and NASA has announced plans that it will begin testing a 3D printer that would allow astronauts to fashion tools or parts in space.
A 3D printer forms plastic objects out of spools of raw material, and could reduce astronauts’ need to pack spacecrafts with extra tools, spare parts or other surplus supplies. Doctors currently use the technology to build artificial joints, while artists use 3D printers to make uniquely designed jewelry.
In addition to test-printing replacement parts and rocket pieces that can survive in space, NASA labs are currently working on 3D printing small satellites that could transmit data to earth. The space agency has scheduled the first 3D printer test in space for fall 2014.
"Any time we realize we can 3D print something in space, it's like Christmas," Andrew Filo, who is consulting with NASA on the project, told the Associated Press. "You can get rid of concepts like rationing, scarce or irreplaceable."
"If you want to be adaptable, you have to be able to design and manufacture on the fly, and that's where 3D printing in space comes in," added Dave Korsmeyer, director of engineering at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in California.
Every 3D printer available currently on the market was built for use on Earth, meaning NASA had to acquire a printer capable of handling the unique challenges of space travel. A microgravity environment, various air pressures, limited power and a wide range of temperatures were all considered by the NASA’s 3D printing team.
The space agency eventually hired a Silicon Valley startup Made In Space to build the printing system.
"Imagine an astronaut needing to make a life-or-death repair on the International Space Station," said Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made in Space. "Rather than hoping that the necessary parts and tools are on the station already, what if the parts could be 3D printed when they needed them?"
After launching the endeavor in 2010, the startup company has finally closed in on the final stages of building the new space system, testing a sealed 3D printer in a dust free cleanroom in NASA labs last week. As a point-of-reference, the team considered the situation presented by the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, when astronauts created a life-saving filter using a plastic bag, a manual cover and duct tape.
"Safety has been one of our biggest concerns," said strategic officer Michael Chen. "But when we get it right, we believe these are the only way to manifest living in space.”
NASA said its printers will eventually have to be able to print their own parts for self-repairs and have the capacity to recycle printed products into new ones.
Scott Crump, who began developing the printing technology in 1988, told the AP that until metal becomes common in 3D printers – its applications will be limited.
"The good news is that you don't have to have this huge amount of inventory in space, but the bad news is now you need materials, in this case filament, and a lot of power," he said.