MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — To prepare for a future where parts can be built on-demand in space, Made in Space, the space manufacturing company, has partnered with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center to launch the first 3D printer to space.
Made in Space’s customized 3D printer will be the first device to manufacture parts away from planet Earth. The 3D Printing in Zero-G Experiment will validate the capability of additive manufacturing in zero-gravity.
“Imagine an astronaut needing to make a life-or-death repair on the International Space Station,” said Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made in Space. “Rather than hoping that the necessary parts and tools are on the station already, what if the parts could be 3D printed when they needed them?”
All space missions today are completely dependent on Earth and the launch vehicles that send equipment to space. The greater the distance from Earth and the longer the duration, the more difficult it will be to resupply materials.
“As NASA ventures further into space, whether redirecting an asteroid or sending humans to Mars, we’ll need transformative technology to reduce cargo weight and volume,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said during a recent tour of the agency’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. “In the future, perhaps astronauts will be able to print the tools or components they need while in space.”
The Made in Space and NASA team envisions a future where space missions can be virtually self-sufficient and manufacture most of what they need in space. This includes such things as consumables, common tools, and replacements for lost or broken parts and eventually even such things as CubeSats (small, deployable satellites).
“The 3D printing experiment with NASA is a step towards the future. The ability to 3D print parts and tools on-demand greatly increases the reliability and safety of space missions while also dropping the cost by orders of magnitude,” said Kemmer. “The first printers will start by building test coupons, and will then build a broad range of parts, such as tools and science equipment.”
Both Made in Space and NASA view the space station as the place to initiate the journey of in-space manufacturing.
“We’re taking additive manufacturing technology to new heights, by working with Made in Space to test 3D printing aboard the space station,” said Michael Gazarik, NASA’s associate administrator for space technology in Washington. “Taking advantage of our orbiting national laboratory, we’ll be able to test new manufacturing techniques that benefit our astronauts and America’s technology development pipeline.”
In preparation for the 2014 launch, Made in Space tested a diverse array of 3D printing technologies in zero-gravity in 2011 and is conducting additional tests this year. These microgravity tests provide the initial research that fed into the developments for the 3D Print experiment. Made in Space will be doing additional microgravity tests later this year.
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The Made in Space 3D Printer is built specifically to handle the environmental challenges of space and uses extrusion additive manufacturing, which builds objects layer by layer out of polymers and other materials.
The primary goal of the experiment is to serve as a technology demonstration to verify the data collected from multiple parabolic flights that 3D printed parts in microgravity are equitable to earth-based parts. For this mission, Made in Space was awarded a Phase III Small Business Innovation and Research Contract.
The hardware is scheduled to be certified and ready for launch to the International Space Station in 2014. The ISS is a fully operating National Laboratory where commercial, international, and academic partnerships abound.
“The public has been hearing about what this 3D printing technology can do, but most people haven’t seen a genuine impact on their lives yet,” said Kemmer. “Space is one of the key places where humanity will see the first impact of this incredible technology.”