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.
“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.”
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.”
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.