One of the more fascinating applications for 3D printing is the fabrication of object in Space. NASA, as well as the European Space Industry, and several private companies, are working diligently on methods, applications, and technologies to enable 3D printing outside of the earth’s atmosphere.
NASA, along with Mountain View-based Made In Space, are seemingly at the forefront of all this research. Back in September NASA launched the very first ZeroG 3D Printer into space, with its destination being the International Space Station. With the launch, marked a turning point in space travel, one which could take us to distant planets like Mars without the need for numerous supply missions. With a ZeroG 3D Printer on board, astronauts could theoretically, in the future, print most of what they need during a mission.
“When the first human fashioned a tool from a rock, it couldn’t have been conceived that one day we’d be replicating the same fundamental idea in space,” said Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made In Space, Inc. “We look at the operation of the 3D printer as a transformative moment, not just for space development, but for the capability of our species to live away from Earth.”
Before getting ahead of ourselves, however, researchers first need to be able to print small plastic parts in order to learn more about the process of 3D printing in an environment with microgravity . After more than two months in space, the printer finally was able to fabricate its very first object, a faceplate for its own extruder, with the words ‘Made In Space” printed into it. The faceplate will serve as an access panel to the print head and is an actual functioning part. Such a part is a fantastic example of how astronauts can print custom components, as needed, without the burden of having to bring numerous supplies to space, which likely would never be used.
“This project demonstrates the basic fundamentals of useful manufacturing in space. The results of this experiment will serve as a stepping stone for significant future capabilities that will allow for the reduction of spare parts and mass on a spacecraft, which will change exploration mission architectures for the better,” said Mike Snyder, Director of R&D for Made In Space and Principal Investigator for this experiment. “Manufacturing components on demand will yield more efficient, more reliable, and less Earth dependent space programs in the near future.”
Made in Space, with the help of NASA, has certainly taken a huge step towards the future of space travel and manufacturing. Additional parts will be printed on the ZeroG 3D Printer, which will then be sent back to Earth. Here, researchers will analyze various aspects of the objects, including flexibility, tensile strength, and torque. Made In Space can then take this information and use it to improve upon a second printer which they are working on, scheduled to be launched early next year. While the second printer will be used to create objects for both NASA and Made in Space, to further their research and development, it will also be available to businesses who wish to rent time in order to fabricate objects such as small satellites.
“In 1957, Sputnik became the first man-made object in space and, 12 years later, that led to humans setting foot on the moon,” said Kemmer. “Now, in 2014, we’ve taken another significant step forward – we’ve started operating a machine that will lead us to continual manufacturing in space. Decades from now, people will look back to this event…it will be seen as the moment when the paradigm of how we get hardware to space changed.”
What will this first print and subsequent analysis of it lead to? It’s anyone’s guess at this point. However, with the team at Made In Space combining their talents with the world’s most advanced space agency, NASA, the Sky is no longer the limit. Let’s hear your thoughts on one of the most incredible 3D prints we have seen yet. Discuss in the Made in Space forum thread on 3DPB.com