NASA has cleared a 3D printer for launch to the International Space Station in August. The decision follows trials at Marshall Space Flight Center in the state of Alabama. The printer was developed by California start-up Made in Space.
"NASA was able to provide key guidance on how to best comply with strenuous space certification, safety and operational requirements, and Made in Space excelled at incorporating that insight into the design,” NASA 3D project manager Niki Werkheiser said in a Thursday statement.
“Made in Space now has first-hand experience of the full A-Z process for designing, building and testing hardware for spaceflight,” he added.
3D printers use a unique technique called extrusion additive manufacturing, which builds objects layer by layer out of polymers, metals, and other raw materials. The technology means objects can actually be manufactured in space, meaning the need to launch components from Earth would be much reduced – making space exploration much cheaper and more efficient.
“The ability to manufacture on demand in space is going to be paradigm shift for the way development, research and exploration happen in space,” Michael Snyder, the lead engineer in R&D at Made in Space, told Space.com.
The testers at Marshall Space Flight Center looked at a number of factors to determine whether the 3D printer was ready for space – including its ability to withstand the rigors of launch and its compatibility with other interfaces on the ISS. Scientists and engineers also tested a series of objects printed by the device on Earth.
The printer will join the next cargo mission by private company SpaceX, which will fly to the space station for NASA using its Dragon Capsule in a launch sometime in August.
Once installed in the space station’s Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG), it will print out 21 test parts and tools, which will then be returned to Earth for analysis.
The 3D printer will fulfill a number of objectives in space, primarily testing of the additive-manufacturing process in microgravity, and also the usability of some parts. The idea is that when the experiment is over, a permanent 3D printer will be kept on board the ISS.
“Passing the final tests and shipping the hardware are significant milestones, but they ultimately lead to an even more meaningful one – the capability for anyone on Earth to have the option of printing objects on the ISS. This is unprecedented access to space,” Made in Space CEO Aaron Kemmer said.
Made in Space was founded in 2010 with the goal of enabling manufacturing in space, and is radically impacting the space missions of the future.