Next year, a 3D printer is set to boldly go where no MarketBot or RepRap has gone before — beyond the earth's atmosphere and aboard the International Space Station (ISS). NASA has approved a custom shoe-box sized 3D printer — which it helped design — for the micro-gravitational conditions of space flight and the environment found on the ISS. But before the 3D printer can actually be shipped into space, it has one more test to pass. Later this summer, NASA and Made in Space — the company that will produce the printer — will take the experimental hardware aboard a final test flight to observe it's ability to safely handle microgravity.
Why go to earth, when you can print it yourself?This last test shouldn't be a major hurdle — though nothing in space is ever really routine, is it? Made in Space and NASA have been able to successfully operate the 3D printer across three sub-orbital flight tests that took place in 2011. Like a MakerBot or RepRap, Made in Space's 3D printer uses an approach called additive manufacturing to print objects in layers of plastic and other materials. The device is fully enclosed in metal, with a glass window on the front that will allow astronauts to see what's being printed inside. The ISS's 3D printer will be capable of working in zero-gravity conditions. The printer will be used to print spare parts, including replacement tools and accessories such as clips and buckles, a report from De Zeen said. Made in Space and NASA are eyeing August as the window to take the 3D printer up to the ISS, according to Space.com.
The future: 3D printed tools and pizza
Made in Space was founded in 2010, by former astronauts and 3D printing vets, specifically to bring 3D printing to (you guessed it) space. The startup operates out of NASA's Research Park complex near San Jose. The company's more ambitious goal is to make astronauts less reliant on earth by supplying them with 3D printers that allow them to produce the tools they need to work and live, in space and on demand. "When we start going out to Mars, and back to the moon, and going to asteroids, it's going to be even more important that [astronauts] have printers with them," Jason Dunn, Made in Space's CTO and co-founder, told De Zeen. This, of course, isn't the first time that NASA has explored how 3D printing can be used in space and spacecraft. So far, the agency has used 3D printing to test and build rocket parts. NASA is also funding the development of a 3D food printer that can make pizzas.