ISS astronauts test 3D printer
Plastic name plaque produced on low-orbit station, opening door to self-sufficiency in space
Astronauts on the International Space Station have used their recently installed 3D printer to produce... a name plaque for their recently installed 3D printer, the Register reported.
The label, which is now tacked on to the microwave oven-sized printer, says, "Made in space - Nasa".
"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 ISS 3D Printer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. "The space station is the only laboratory where we can fully test this technology in space."
The station received its 3D printer in September, but it was only installed last week by Barry "Butch" Wilmore, the Expedition 42 commander on the ISS.
Nasa sees the printing of the plaque as a first step towards making space-based missions more self-sufficient. ISS personnel built the component using instructions sent from the ground. The next step will be to print parts for other printers and eventually reproduce an entire working printer, to make longer missions, such as journeys to Mars, viable.
For now, the name plaque will be couriered back to ground staff and analysed to see if its properties diverge from a similar part manufactured on Earth. If the first test is a success, the Nasa team will still have to iron out other problems. 3D printers use a base substrate material to carve out their products. While plastic is easy to manipulate, metal would pose problems. Astronauts would have to grind rough edges off precision parts to make them usable, creating debris that is hazardous in zero-gravity environments.
"This is the first time we've ever used a 3D printer in space, and we are learning, even from these initial operations," Werkheiser said.
"As we print more parts we'll be able to learn whether some of the effects we are seeing are caused by microgravity or just part of the normal fine-tuning process for printing. When we get the parts back on Earth, we'll be able to do a more detailed analysis to find out how they compare to parts printed on Earth."