NASA to send 3D printer into space

Printer to produce parts for spacecrafts so astronauts can repair them on the spot

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NASA to send 3D printer into space Werkheiser: "The greater the distance from Earth and the longer the mission duration, the more difficult it is to resupply materials." (Getty Images)
By  Helen Gaskell Published  September 21, 2014

NASA is sending a 3-D printer to the International Space Station in hopes that astronauts will be able to fix their spacecraft by printing out the spare parts they need.

The printer, which is the size of a small microwave, has been made by a Northern California company called Made in Space which was awarded a Phase III Small Business Innovation and Research Contract to develop, test and certify for flight the first mini-machine shop to perform 3-D printing in space by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre.

According to a statement from NASA, the 3-D printer uses extrusion-based additive manufacturing, building parts, objects and tools layer by layer out of plastic. Researchers hope to show a 3-D printer can work normally in space and produce parts equal in quality to those printed on the ground.

"The greater the distance from Earth and the longer the mission duration, the more difficult it is to resupply materials," said Niki Werkheiser, 3-D Print project manager in Marshall's Technology Development and Transfer Office. "The space station is an ideal platform to begin changing the current model for resupply and repair to one that is more suitable for all exploration missions."

The initial parts to be printed are already loaded into the 3-D printer, but additional part designs will be added by uplinking new CAD files from the ground to the printer on orbit. The printer's operations can also be controlled from the ground, including powering it on and off, as well as monitoring and controlling the printing process. Astronauts on board the International Space Station will set-up the printer and remove the completed part from the print tray when ready for use.

The printer can create parts between 2.3 inches by 4.7 inches by 2.3 inches. However, with 3-D Printing, larger parts can be assembled by connecting individually printed parts together. Print time can range from 15 minutes to an hour depending on the size and complexity of the part being printed.

Marshall and Made in Space, Inc. worked closely together during the printer's design process. NASA offered insight and guidance to the company during the development cycle to ensure that all flight requirements were met, which ultimately led to successfully passing the stringent flight certification tests without any major issues.  Additionally, all of the environmental and qualification tests required for flight and safety certification were conducted at Marshall in several facilities.

"The technology to produce parts on demand in space offers unique design options that aren't possible through traditional manufacturing methods, while offering cost-effective, high-precision manufacturing," said Werkheiser. "Additive manufacturing limits the need to stockpile parts and may alleviate a lot of structural and geometrical constraints caused by launch loads and vehicle stowage requirements."

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