made in space 3d printer
September 3, 2014

NASA Planning To Send 3D Printer Technology To ISS Later This Year

Chuck Bednar for - Your Universe Online

International Space Station crew members currently forced to wait for resupply vehicles to arrive with essential items could soon benefit from the arrival of a new 3D printer later this year, NASA officials announced on Tuesday.

The device, which was constructed by Made In Space Inc. and passed flight certification and acceptance testing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama back in April, is expected to make its way to the ISS later this year aboard the SpaceX-4 resupply mission, the US space agency said.

The 3D printer will be the first to ever leave the Earth’s atmosphere, and NASA is banking on it being a game-changer. They hope that it will demonstrate that the technology can work normally in the orbital laboratory’s microgravity environment, and that it will be able to produce parts equal in quality to those made on the ground.

“It works by extruding heated plastic, which then builds layer upon layer to create three-dimensional objects,” explained Jessica Eagan of the International Space Station Program Science Office at Marshall Space Flight Center. “Testing this on the station is the first step toward creating a working ‘machine shop’ in space."

“This capability may decrease cost and risk on the station, will be critical when space explorers venture far from Earth and will create an on-demand supply chain for needed tools and parts,” she added. “If the printer is successful, it will not only serve as the first demonstration of additive manufacturing in microgravity, but it also will bring NASA… a big step closer to evolving in-space manufacturing for future missions to destinations such as an asteroid and Mars.”

Made In Space received a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) from Marshall’s 3-D Printing In Zero-G Technology Demonstration (3-D Printing In Zero-G) program to build the device. The project is supported by the International Space Station Technology Development Office in Houston, as well as the Advanced Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and the Game Changing Development Program at NASA HQ in Washington.

If proven to be successful, the technology would greatly benefit long-term space missions thanks to the onboard manufacturing capabilities it would provide, explained NASA. The data and knowledge gained during this demonstration will improve future 3D manufacturing technology and equipment for use by the space program, while allowing astronauts to have a greater degree of autonomy and flexibility during missions, the agency added.

“I remember when the tip broke off a tool during a mission,” said NASA astronaut TJ Creamer, a member of the Expedition 22/23 crew from December 2009 to June 2010. “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 time required to print a new tool or instrument would depend on the size and complexity of the part, and would range from anywhere from 15 minutes to one hour on average, the US space agency said. Instructions can be pre-loaded onto the printer in the form of a computer-aided design model, or that information could be uplinked from the ground to the station printer, which can be operated primarily from Marshall's Operations Support Center.

“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,” said NASA's 3-D print project manager Niki Werkheiser. “The on-demand capability can revolutionize the constrained supply chain model we are limited to today and will be critical for exploration missions.”

The printer will decrease both cost and risk, while also increasing efficiency, NASA said. Ken Cooper, principal investigator for 3D printing at Marshall, called the project “the first step in sustaining longer missions beyond low-Earth orbit.”

“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,” he added. “That’s where a 3-D printer in space can pay off.”


FOR THE KINDLE: The History of 3D Printing: redOrbit Press