The International Space Station crew has successfully manufactured the first 3D object in space, a landmark that could pave the way for long-term space exploration. The 3D printer was designed by Made in Space and was carried to the ISS by SpaceX following tests in a ‘vomit comet’.
[Image Source: NASA]
The technology is revolutionary and those working in space exploration hope that it will usher in a new age of out of this world manufacturing. It allows those in space to print as needed, rather than having to estimate which parts are likely to break and having to take excess tools with them. Now, they will be able to replace any part (as long as it’s not too big, for now) and also print any tool that they need on demand.
“This first print is the initial step toward providing an on-demand machine shop capability away from Earth,” said Niki Werkheiser, project manager for the International Space Station 3-D Printer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “The space station is the only laboratory where we can fully test this technology in space.”
The first part printed was the faceplate of the extruder’s casing – a replacement part for itself! The extruder plate, which measures roughly 3 inches long by 1.5 inches wide by 0.25 inches thick (7.6 by 3.8 by 0.6 centimeters), features the logos of both Made In Space and NASA and took roughly an hour to print.
“We chose this part to print first because, after all, if we are going to have 3D printers make spare and replacement parts for critical items in space, we have to be able to make spare parts for the printers,” Werkheiser said.
“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.”
When the team tried to remove the part from the print tray they found that it had stuck to the surface a bit more than expected, indicating slight differences in the process due to microgravity. The ground control team is now sending commands to fine-tune the printer’s alignment and try again. These minute calibrations will allow the researchers to try to come up with a set of parameters to print parts perfectly in space.