Sometimes getting hold of a spare part for an appliance can be quite difficult. Just imagine what astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) do, where deliveries aren’t the easiest thing to do. There has only been one way to get something into space: blast in up there. NASA has already begun funding a startup that is looking to begin producing the first functioning zero gravity 3D printers. Called “Made In Space”, the prototype is already at the ISS, and a new model is expected to launch on March 23, 2016.
This inspiring important process was unveiled recently by NASA at its research park in Silicon Valley. To survive in space ever, we’re going to have to start making things without relying on Earth. The 3D printer will be used to make spare parts, as well as experiments. “You can bring us a USB stick with your file, and we can digitally send it to space,” says Andrew Rush, chief executive of Made In Space. “Via 3D printing we can make that object and completely avoid putting it on a rocket.”
With 3D printers, NASA would simply be shipping the raw materials required to fuel the printer. “The space environment is a very valuable and unique environment. We can make things that would just be impossible to create on Earth,” says Rush. 3D printing in zero gravity poses its own set of challenges as well as benefits. In space, moon dust and asteroids can be captured and used as raw material. “This new manufacturing process really opened the design space and allowed for part geometries that would be impossible with traditional machining or casting methods,” said David Eddleman, a member of the 3D printing team at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in HuntsvilleNASA , Ala.
The ability to print items in space will produce huge savings for NASA because of the great expense involved in sending items to the ISS, estimated at several thousand dollars per ounce. Food could be produced with 3D printer as well, an option NASA is exploring via a challenge to engineers asking them to create a food preparation item with the technology.
In December, NASA announced that engineers had successfully printed and tested 75% of the parts required for a rocket engine, including valves, turbo pumps, and injectors. The resulting pieces do not look like traditional engine parts, but they work just as well.
“Made In Space” is also working on Archinaut, which could one day print massive pieces of tech that would then be assembled by robots in space. Rush says “Giant radio dishes that could service many people, or do amazing science and peer deep into the universe’s past.” The team doesn’t see this project excelling for at least four to five years, but does see potential after that. Until then, experiments with the small scale 3D printer will be the focus of Made In Space’s efforts.