On January 10th, the Dragon launched into the sky. After 29 operational days, it plunged back to Earth, landing with a splash last night.
The Dragon in question, of course, is from SpaceX (not, say, a Khaleesi), and it was docked for just over four weeks at the International Space Station. The supply ship carried almost 3,700 pounds of cargo from the ISS, landing in the Pacific Ocean shortly before sunset last night as it completed its fifth operational resupply flight mission between terra firma and the ISS.
Among those thousands of pounds of space goodies were objects that had been 3D printed in space, nestled safely among biological research specimens, a defective spacesuit, and other research materials. The 3D printed objects, of course, came from the ISS’ now-famous 3D printer. Every object printed in orbit has also been printed on the ground for a comparison in part quality to see how viable 3D printing is for further space research, exploration, and travel.
“Experiments like 3D printing in space demonstrate important capabilities that allow NASA and humanity to proceed farther on the journey to Mars,” Kirt Costello, deputy chief scientist for the International Space Station program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in a statement. “Other investigations such as those focused on protein crystal growth take advantage of the unique microgravity environment and offer us new avenues to investigate troubling diseases back on Earth.”
The thought of going somewhere like Mars, once only seen in science fiction, is becoming a reality that is increasingly undeniable — and 3D printing is a technology that enhances the viability of human life expanding past our own pale blue dot. The potential for 3D printers to operate in space, using materials from alien bodies, like regolith, as well as common lightweight plastics for tools and the like, is a game-changer in thinking about how to realistically sustain human life and habitats.
The ISS’ 3D printer is a huge step forward, and we’ve already seen some truly impressive feats with successful prints as results are seen from SpaceX’s involvement. Bringing some of these objects back to Earth is a key step in understanding how they will hold up in extraterrestrial conditions. By ferrying the objects between Earth and the ISS, the Dragon spacecraft has been an invaluable part of the process.
“The ability to resupply and return this critical research continues to be an invaluable asset for the researchers here on Earth using the International Space Station as their laboratory in orbit,” Costello noted.
The pressurized interior of the Dragon makes it the perfect vehicle for such cargo — as well as, currently, the only option. While the Soyuz capsule from Russia can carry astronauts and smaller vehicles are made to burn up in the atmosphere upon re-entry to incinerate ISS waste, the Dragon is capable of transporting large and critical loads of supplies, equipment, and other important cargo.
“This is the end of a very, very successful Dragon mission,” European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti told mission control after having released the Dragon. “It’s a privilege working with Dragon, doing a bunch of science — lots of samples are coming back on it — and of course sending her on her way.”
Having made it safely back to Earth, the Dragon’s next stop is Long Beach. The payload will then be unloaded and distributed to NASA’s worldwide network of scientists, engineers, and researchers. The Dragon itself is destined for a return to SpaceX’s Texas center for post-flight processing.
Let us know what you think about Dragon’s mission progress, and space-made 3D printed objects returning to Earth, in the Dragon Splashes Back forum thread over at 3DPB.com.