nasa 3D printing in zero gravity

February 9, 2018

NASA has one of the most interesting challenges using 3D printing technology – printing in space. Astronauts on the International Sapce Station (ISS) need many parts to keep the space station working in good condition. In the past, NASA would send cargo resupply missions from Earth to meet the needs of their crew members on orbit. Space crew members would have to wait several weeks, sometimes even months, to receive critical maintenance parts and tools. Not only is it expensive to send these cargo resupply missions, but as we venture into space, it will become even more complex and costly to send these parts. This prompted NASA to consider alternative options to transport supplies. 

3D printing technology sparked a new opportunity. Astronauts could use a 3D printer to print their parts in space, on the station itself. Parts would be available in a matter of hours, cutting down the cost to transfer the parts and being able to manage repairs much easier. They faced one major challenge though. How do you create a 3D printer to be used in zero gravity? 

The 3D printing experiment 

In the fall of 2014, NASA launched it’s program 3D Print Experiment. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Made In Space have partnered together to develop and launch the first 3D printing experiment to the International Space Station. The first 3D printer in space uses Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) plastic to create the images. Twenty parts can be printed and additional design files can be uplinked from Earth as well. The printer was launched to the International Space Station on the fourth installment of the SpaceX Cargo Resupply Service mission.

the first 3d printed objects printed in space

On April 6, 2015, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama received the first items manufactured in space with a 3D printer. The first tool was made in space was a wrench. By the end of the year (November 2015), the crew would create 21 items in space. The parts were created using plastic filaments. The parts were returned to NASA for testing.

potential for large part 3d printing 

As space exploration continues, NASA realizes the need for a microgravity 3D print-on-demand “machine shop” for long-duration space missions. 3D printing addresses the vital need for sustainable, deep-space human exploration, especially when there is limited logistical support available from Earth. NASA says that the ability to 3D print parts and tools on demand will dramatically reduce the time to takes to get the parts in orbit and to the astronauts who need them. NASA believes 3D printing parts and tools will increase reliability and safety of space missions, along with reducing costs. As NASA invests in 3D technology, we are excited to see how large part 3D printing will improve future missions.

Keep Reading: More articles about 3D Printing

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