Back in September, a SpaceX Dragon launch carrying cargo to the International Space Station delivered the station's first 3-D printer, designed and built by Made In Space Inc. Last week, astronauts on board the space station installed the printer, and this week, after a series of calibration tests, Made In Space engineers here on Earth sent the printer instructions to make its first printed part: a faceplate for the printer's extruder. Yesterday, astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore removed the finished part from the printer, marking a breakthrough moment in space manufacturing that could change the future of space exploration.
The printer uses a process known as "additive manufacturing" to extrude a low-temperature plastic filament one layer at a time, following a preloaded design to create three-dimensional objects. Along with the faceplate, the printer will craft other predetermined objects identical to ones already 3-D printed by engineers on the ground. Next year, the objects made onboard the station will be sent back to Earth to be compared to the ground-made objects, in an effort to determine what effect microgravity has on the printing process. The ultimate goal of these tests: a space "machine shop" where spare parts and tools can be created in orbit, or even on long space voyages, without having to wait for supplies to be sent from Earth.
"The operation of the 3-D printer is a transformative moment in space development," said Aaron Kemmer, chief executive officer of Made In Space. "We’ve built a machine that will provide us with research data needed to develop future 3-D printers for the International Space Station and beyond, revolutionizing space manufacturing. This may change how we approach getting replacement tools and parts to the space station crew, allowing them to be less reliant on supply missions from Earth."
The faceplate was chosen as the first object made by the printer in part because if 3-D printers are to be effective on long space missions without the aid of new deliveries from Earth, the printer must also create its own spare parts.
“We chose this part to print first because, after all, if we are going to have 3-D printers make spare and replacement parts for critical items in space, we have to be able to make spare parts for the printers,” said project manager Niki Werkheiser. “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.”
So, while the project is still in the testing phase, NASA has just taken a big leap on the road to self-sufficient space travel with this 3-D printer. One day, astronauts could be on their way to Mars, manufacturing tools required to set up a camp on the Red Planet's surface with a printer they brought with them, and one day those same printers could be on the Martian surface, making the tools humans need to survive there.
Check out a NASA video giving an overview of the project below: