The dream of 3D printing in space is speeding ever closer to reality. Last year, word that NASA intended to send a 3D printer to space smacked of a lofty dream machine. But just a few weeks ago, Made in Space wrapped up another pre-launch 3D-printing test, which included an exercise that solved the infamous 1970 Apollo 13 problem, when moon-bound astronauts jury-rigged their own carbon dioxide filter in a harrowing number of days, in just hours with a newly printed replacement part.
With help from Made in Space, a Mountain View-based 3D printing outfit, NASA astronauts on the International Space Station could finally have a way creating new parts. Currently, it can take days or weeks for replacement parts to make their way on expensive and resource intensive rockets. At the same time, instead of stuffing a Soyuz capsule full of spare parts like a closet, astronauts could save space on the station by keeping spools of filament at the ready to print parts on demand.
3D printing in space comes with complications. For one thing, the physics behind printing in microgravity, where everything tends to float, can radically affect the way extruded layers stick together. NASA and Made in Space also had to figure out a way to contain gases emitted from the hot plastics.
Research has culminated with a toaster-sized 3D printer made of glass and metal that’s completely self-contained. For months the design team has been testing their printers in simulated microgravity on parabolic flights, where a padded commercial plane flies up and down in a continuous arc. For the first 3-D printer in space test, NASA will send the Made in Space printer to the ISS aboard the Space X-5 later this fall.
Images © Made in Space