The boom that 3D printing has experienced over the past couple years has been nothing short of astonishing. The industry started off as predominately as a backyard engineering operation, designing machines that’s sole purpose was to be able to print another one of itself, but it quickly escalated into the market we know today. Indeed it seems even the most wildest predictions about how it would revolutionize certain industries have come true with leading engineering companies adopting 3D printers for both prototyping and full blown production developments. With that in mind it was only a matter of time before one of them was bound for the International Space Station and yesterday SpaceX launched the first 3D printer to be based in space.
The printer, made by Made in Space, isn’t simply a stock standard model that’s been gussied up to work on the ISS. It’s been specifically designed to work in the microgravity environment in low earth orbit, undergoing thousands of simulated zero-g tests (presumably on one of NASA’s vomit comets). Whilst the specifications might not be exactly astounding when compared to some of the printers available down here on earth, it only has a print volume of 5cm x 10cm x 5cm with ABS plastic, it has the potential to be quite revolutionary for NASA, not to mention 3D printing at large.
One of the worst things about space travel is having to bring everything you need with you as there’s really no manufacturing capability to speak of in space. A 3D printer however provides the opportunity to ship up bulk supplies, in this case large reels of ABS plastic, which have a much greater density than the parts created with them will have. This drastically reduces the cost and complexity of shipping things up into space and provides a greater opportunity to create things in-orbit that might not be feasible to ship up otherwise. Of course whether or not 3D printing will be viable in space is another question, one which this device will attempt to answer.
There’s a lot of use for 3D printed plastic parts on the ISS, notably pretty much any small clip or connector on the interior of the craft, however I feel that the real usefulness of 3D printer will come when they can print with metal. Right now there’s no good solutions for doing that via the extruder (although there are a few out there using solder, which doesn’t have the greatest construction properties) as most use the powder bed sintering process. As you can probably guess having a bunch of powder in a microgravity environment isn’t going to work out too well so I’ll be interested to see how future space based 3D printers deal with metal and other materials.
It’s really quite exciting to see developments like this as there’s an incredible amount of opportunity for 3D printing to revolutionize several aspects of space travel. Indeed for long duration missions, one where component failure is a real risk, these kinds of in-orbit manufacturing capabilities are a necessity. Whilst we won’t be mass producing spacecraft parts in orbit any time soon these are the first few baby steps needed to developing that capability.
And wouldn’t you know it Planetary Resources already has partnerships in that direction. I should have guessed!