Last week, NASA publicly announced that the 3D printer the space agency had sent to International Space Station (ISS) 3 months ago has successfully printed a 3D object under zero gravity conditions. The 3D printer was designed and produced by Made in Space under a joint partnership with NASA.
Aaron Kemmer, Made in Space chief executive, said this was a big step for future space exploration since this future would change forever when everything man ever needed for space would be built in space. In this future, structures, parts and habitats will not be launched and assembled, but 3D-printed, Kemmer said.
NASA hopes the 3D printer will be soon able to print all sorts of parts on ISS, from scientific research tools to emergency fixes, and in the near future also entire spacecrafts using materials collected by asteroid mining operations.
Currently, all space missions are dependent on Earth resources and it takes considerable amounts of money and time to get those resources up in space. It costs between $5,000 and $25,000 to ferry 1 kilo (2.2 lbs) from Earth to ISS. All these will be history when 3D printing technology will be able to produce all types of structures astronauts need using only asteroid materials.
Space 3D printing is also expected to solve size-limitations problems encountered when transporting items from Earth. On Earth, these items must be compatible with their launch vehicle storage limitations. Made in Space says 3D printing technology would be able to create mega structures (larger than 1 km) directly in space.
Three-D printers will also make space emergency solutions useless by allowing astronauts design and print the exact spare-parts they need when having an emergency. Today, whenever space explorers can’t find life-saving emergency solutions, they must usually face death.
On November 17, Barry Wilmore, an ISS astronaut, installed the 3D printer and conducted several calibration tests. On November 25, the ISS team saw the first 3D printed object ever printed in space – a faceplate for the printer itself carrying NASA’s and Made in Space’s logos. Werkheiser said this was clear evidence for NASA that whenever replacement parts or even an additional 3D printers would be needed, the ISS crew could produce them.
“We really can’t be dependent on launching every single item we might ever need from Earth. We will need to be able to make what we need, when we need it, on demand, and this is the first step to establishing those capabilities,”
commander Werkheiser said.
Scientists also believe that zero gravity printing has some other benefits. On Earth, large objects produced by 3D technology are often pulled down by gravity, but in space this drawback may not exist. In 2015, NASA plans to get the first objects printed at the ISS back on Earth for analysis and comparison tests.