Astronauts aboard the International Space Station came a step closer to self-sufficiency yesterday by successfully manufacturing the first 3D-printed part to be produced in space. The printer, installed aboard the ISS last week by NASA commander Barry "Butch" Wilmore, was used to produce a replacement plastic faceplate for its own extruder system using a technique called additive manufacturing. NASA says the project is "paving the way for future long-term space expeditions," — by demonstrating that replacement parts for repairs could be produced in space, the space agency shows that astronauts may soon not have to wait for supplies to reach them from Earth, potentially allowing them to travel further from our planet's surface.
The printer may enable longer journeys to Mars, or asteroids
Niki Werkheiser, project manager for the ISS' 3D printer, explained the project's first test. "If a printer is critical for explorers, it must be capable of replicating its own parts, so that it can keep working during longer journeys to places like Mars or an asteroid. Ultimately, one day, a printer may even be able to print another printer." Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made In Space, who collaborated with NASA to develop the printer, called its installation and operation "a transformative moment in space development." Kemmer's company is working with NASA's ground crew to control the printer's operation from Earth, reducing the amount of time ISS astronauts need to spend with the device.
While NASA is conducting the test partly to ensure the viability of producing replacement parts in space, the space agency is also testing how the zero-gravity environment affects the processes of 3D printing. The first 3D-printed part will be sent back to Earth in 2015 to allow researchers to run tests to check the differences between manufacturing in space and on Earth. Already the part was noted to have stronger bonds of adhesion than expected, but Werkheiser said the team was not yet sure whether the effects were caused by microgravity or "part of the normal fine-tuning process for printing."