After four months, here are all 25 parts that have been 3D-printed in space.
November 24th at 9:28pm GMT is a moment that Made In Space and the entire Maker community will never forget. It was the day that the crew completed the first functional 3D print outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. The historic Zero-G 3D printer arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) on September 23, 2014 and was activated on November 17, a week before making the replacement plastic faceplate for the machine’s own extruder system. Now a couple of months later, the Silicon Valley startup has revealed that has indeed finished its initial round of objects ranging from a calibration coupon to a ratchet. (The ratchet actually marked the first time in history an object had ever been emailed into space as well.)
“Although there were only 14 unique objects printed, 25 parts were printed in total. Duplicates were printed in order to determine the consistency of the printer over time,” the team wrote in a recent blog post. “The part that was printed the most was the ‘calibration coupon’ for a total of five times. Like a calibration page that standard inkjet printers print out when connected for the first time, the calibration coupon was used to verify that the 3D printer was working as expected. The ‘tensile test; was printed four times and both the ‘compression test’ and the ‘flex test’ were printed three times. Everything else was printed once.”
While the delivery of the 3D printer was an accomplishment in itself, the project demonstrates the basic fundamentals of useful manufacturing in space. Generally speaking, the devices extrude streams of heated plastic, metal or other material, building layer on top of layer to create three-dimensional item. By testing a 3D printer using relatively low-temperature plastic feedstock on the ISS, NASA hopes that one day astronauts will be able to create objects on-demand, rather than having to carry them into orbit. This will allow for a reduction of spare parts and mass on a spacecraft, which can ultimately change exploration mission architectures altogether. What’s more, astronauts can print these pieces from emails and downloaded files of 3D designs.
Aside from becoming the first demonstrate of additive manufacturing in space, NASA researchers say that the project provides:
- A detailed analysis of how acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) thermoplastic resin behaves in microgravity
- A comparison between additive manufacturing in Earth’s gravity and in consistent, long-term exposure to microgravity (insufficient in parabolic flights due to “print-pause” style of printing)
- Advance the TRL of additive manufacturing processes to provide risk reduction, and capabilities, to future flight or mission development programs
- The gateway to fabricating parts on-demand in space, thus reducing the need for spare parts on the mission manifest
- A technology with the promise to provide a significant return on investment, by enabling future NASA missions that would not be feasible without the capability to manufacture parts in situ
- The first step towards evolving additive manufacturing for use in space, and on Deep Space Missions
“Based on visual inspection and crew interaction, there were no significant print failures. If you have ever used a 3D printer before you probably realize just how incredible that first sentence is, especially when you then consider the fact that this 3D printer had to first withstand the forces of a rocket launch before printing anything. The successful printing was an incredibly rewarding outcome for the NASA and Made In Space engineering teams who strived to build a robust and hassle-free printer,” the Made In Space crew writes.
As for what the future holds, Made In Space plans on launching its Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) later this year, which the team says will not be a science experiment like its predecessor, but rather “a commercially available printer ready for use by anyone on Earth.” The AMF will be twice the size of the demo printer, and will be equipped to handle the manufacturing of larger, more complex objects with finer precision — and with multiple aerospace grade materials. Under the agreement for use of the commercial 3D printer on the ISS, Made In Space will own the machine, and NASA will be a customer paying to use it.
The initial success of the technology demonstration and the startup’s blueprint for the coming months provide a clear path forward in bringing advanced manufacturing capabilities into space. Interested in learning more? You can read Made In Space’s entire update, while also reviewing NASA’s report here.