The is no doubt that both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are at the forefront of 3D printing technology. After all, the technology could be one of the biggest enablers of interplanetary exploration that we have seen yet, both from a small-scale standpoint where astronauts can 3D print parts and items needed without requiring large payloads, as well as the printing of actual bases and structures, using Contour Crafting technology and other methods of large-scale 3D printing.
Over the last 12-18 months, we have seen a considerable amount of progress made by NASA and the ESA in conjunction with privately held companies such as Made in Space. The first ever 3D printer was used on the International Space Station back in November of last year, and since then several objects have been printed and returned to Earth for various tests.
When one is within space, the lack of gravity can cause the simplest tasks to become an impossible hurdle, which might not be apparent to those of us who have never set foot outside the Earth’s atmosphere. One such task is that of making a delicious cup of coffee or espresso and then drinking it. As we reported back in November, shortly after the first ever 3D printer had arrived in space, one Italian firm, Argotec, along with the Italian Space Agency, set out to conquer at least half of this problem by creating a machine they called the ISSpresso. The machine is able to produce relatively tasty espresso when gravity is not available.
The only thing that was missing now was a cup to drink it from. Once again, no ordinary cup could be used, as the liquid would just float right out of it. This is where a professor in the Thermal and Fluid Sciences Group at Portland State University, named Mark Weislogel, a colleague named Drew Wollman, and a high school student, Nathan Ott, took the reins. They produced an innovative new design (based off of one which astronaut Don Pettit devised about 7 years ago while spending time on the ISS) for a cup which was able to create enough surface tension to make the coffee drinkable in a zero-gravity environment. Because of the design’s complexities they decided to turn to 3D printing to fabricate their creation.
“The shape of the container can passively migrate fluid to desired locations without moving parts—using passive forces of wetting and surface tension,” explained the team. “Its geometry is the ‘smart’ part, which operate the fluids-control system without requiring pumps or centrifugal forces.”
Once the machine and the drinking utensils were created, there was only one thing left to do, place them on a rocket and send them to space for a test. That’s just what happened yesterday as the first cup of espresso was brewed on the International Space Station, after which Samantha Cristoforetti, an Italian, European Space Agency astronaut, proceeded to use one of six on-board 3D printable cups to drink the first few ounces of the tasty hot liquid.
“Coffee: the finest organic suspension ever devised. Fresh espresso in the new Zero-G cup! To boldly brew,” Cristoforetti Tweeted.
While this may be a small step for coffee, it’s one giant leap for beverages of all kind as NASA, the ESA, and other researchers will use both the ISSpresso machine along with the 3D printed cups for a variety of other beverages as well as future studies to be conducted back on Earth and in space. Let’s hear your thoughts of yet another space breakthrough in the 3D Printed Cup of Coffee forum thread on 3DPB.com. Check out a video of the ISSpresso in action below: