Additive manufacturing in space is ready for take-off!
We’ll know soon enough as to whether the wrenches that were 3D-printed aboard the International Space Station will be up to the mark. That’s because the objects arrived on Earth via SpaceX’s Dragon back on February 10, 2015 following the first phase of Made In Space and NASA’s 3D Printing in Zero-G Demonstration.
As previously discussed on Bits & Pieces, the study team used a printer specifically developed for use in microgravity, which extruded plastic filaments heated at lower temperatures. To conclude its initial testing phase, a ratchet wrench was printed using a design file transmitted from the ground to the printer. Samples, hardware and data from several biology and biotechnology studies were then returned with completion of the SpaceX contracted resupply mission for researchers to build on research that will enable further space exploration.
Here on Earth, the team will now have the opportunity to analyze a wide-range of newly 3D-printed wrenches, experimental data to enhance cooling systems and protein crystals and seedling samples — each of which will allow the scientists to improve upon existing studies. If successful, this will inch one step closer to approving 3D printers for future Mars manned missions, not to mention showcasing the potential of additive manufacturing in orbit.
While in zero gravity, researchers were investigating the use of crystallized cystic fibrosis protein and other closely-related proteins to improve drug therapies for the genetic disorder that causes severe damage to the lungs and digestive system, along with samples of seedling from plants grown in the station to aid in more efficient agricultural and bioenergy resources on Earth.
On the orbital laboratory, researchers also examined liquids at the verge of boiling to understand how the flow of heat in liquids behaves in microgravity. This is important to the development of cooling systems for space exploration with additional applications to waste disposal and recycling processes on Earth.
“For the printer’s final test in this phase of operations, NASA wanted to validate the process for printing on demand, which will be critical on longer journeys to Mars,” explained Niki Werkheiser, the space station 3D printer program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Insight from demonstrations in microgravity also may help improve 3D printing technology on Earth.
Undoubtedly, the scientific research delivered and returned by Dragon will pave the way for advancements in every aspect of the diverse space station science portfolio, ranging from biology and biotechnology to physical sciences and technology development. You can find an entire breakdown of the parts printed while aboard the ISS here, as well as read NASA’s official announcement here.