3D printing heads to space with ISS microgravity experiment

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NASA and California-based Made in Space are to launch equipment for the first 3D microgravity printing experiment to the International Space Station.

If successful, the 3D Printing in Zero G Experiment (3D Print) will be the first device to manufacture parts in space. 3D Print will use extrusion additive manufacturing, which builds objects, layer by layer, out of polymers and other materials. The 3D Print hardware is scheduled to be certified and ready for launch to the space station next year.

‘As NASA ventures further into space, whether redirecting an asteroid or sending humans to Mars, we’ll need transformative technology to reduce cargo weight and volume,’ said NASA administrator Charles Bolden in a statement. ‘In the future, perhaps astronauts will be able to print the tools or components they need while in space.’

According to NASA, 3D printing holds tremendous potential for future space exploration as the technology may allow an entire spacecraft to be manufactured in space, eliminating design constraints caused by the challenges and mass constraints of launching from Earth.

In addition to manufacturing spacecraft designs in orbit, 3D printers also could work with robotic systems to create tools and habitats needed for human missions to Mars and other planetary destinations.

Housing and laboratories could be fabricated by robots using printed building blocks that take advantage of in-situ resources, such as soil or minerals. Astronauts on long-duration space missions also could print and recycle tools as they are needed, saving mass, volume and resources.

Made in Space previously partnered with NASA through the agency’s Flight Opportunities Program to test its prototype 3D Print additive manufacturing equipment on suborbital simulated microgravity flights.