Tag Archives: 3D Printer in Space

3D-printed tools from space are now on Earth for testing


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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

The first object has been 3D-printed in space

Mark this day in the history books: November 24th at 9:28pm GMT (1:28pm PST). That was the moment the team at Made In Space completed their first functional 3D print in space. What was the first object printed outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, you ask? A replacement plastic faceplate for the Zero­-G device’s own extruder system. It was created and installed right in the International Space Station.

“This first print is the initial step toward providing an on-demand machine shop capability away from Earth,” said Niki Werkheiser, NASA Project Manager.

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This project demonstrates the basic fundamentals of useful manufacturing in space. The results of this experiment will serve as a stepping stone for significant future capabilities that will allow for the reduction of spare parts and mass on a spacecraft, which will change exploration mission architectures for the better,” explained Mike Snyder, Made In Space Director of R&D. “Manufacturing components on demand will yield more efficient, more reliable, and less Earth dependent space programs in the near future.”

Moving forward, the team aspires to print various items, each of which will be brought back down to our planet in 2015 and compared with counterparts that were printed here on Earth. This will help determine what differences there are in microgravity printing. Werkheiser has already noted that the newly-constructed part possesses stronger bonds of adhesion than originally anticipated, however the team is unsure at the moment as to whether the effects were caused by microgravity or “part of the normal fine-tuning process for printing.”

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Back on November 17th, NASA astronaut and Expedition 42 commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore installed the Made In Space Zero-G 3D Printer and conducted the first calibration test print. Based on the results from its trial, the ground control team sent commands to realign the printer and printed a second calibration test on November 20th. These tests verified that the machine was ready for manufacturing operations.

Then, on November 24th, ground controllers sent the printer the command to make the first 3D-printed part, which demonstrated that the printer can indeed make replacement parts for itself. As its press release points out, the device used a process formally known as additive manufacturing to heat a relatively low-temperature plastic filament and extrude it one layer at a time to build the part defined in the design file sent to the machine.

This isn’t just your average desktop printer sealed up in a box and sent off into outer space. In fact, the 3D printer was put to the test by NASA with over 20,000 print hours of testing. The Made in Space 3D printer successfully completed its testing at Marshall this past April, and the flight hardware was turned over for flight integration. The printer was then delivered to the ISS in September via a Space X Dragon capsule.

“If a printer is critical for explorers, it must be capable of replicating its own parts, so that it can keep working during longer journeys to places like Mars or an asteroid,” added Werkheiser. “Ultimately, one day, a printer may even be able to print another printer.”

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As Made In Space explains, while objects have been previously created in space, there has never been true, sustained manufacturing there. Years of testing and development have taught the team just how challenging an environment space would be for additive manufacturing.

“In 1957, Sputnik became the first man-made object in space and, 12 years later, that led to humans setting foot on the moon,” said Made In Space CEO Aaron Kemmer. “Now, in 2014, we’ve taken another significant step forward – we’ve started operating a machine that will lead us to continual manufacturing in space. Decades from now, people will look back to this event…it will be seen as the moment when the paradigm of how we get hardware to space changed.”

Well, this gives the term ‘Maker space’ a much more literal meaning! You can stay up-to-date with the Made In Space team here.