A small desktop-size 3D printer is about to boldly go where no 3D printer has gone before: into space. The printer is scheduled to launch with other cargo on a resupply mission aboard SpaceX-4, which could head up the International Space Station as early as September 19.
NASA has embraced 3D printers down here on Earth, so it's only natural it would want to extend the technology to reach astronauts in orbit. The experiment is officially called the "3D Printing in Zero-G Technology Demonstration." Made in Space, a small business focused on adapting 3D printing for manufacturing in space, built the printer for NASA.
The printer is the size of a small microwave and is mainly designed as a proof of concept to see if printing in zero gravity can create objects that are as accurate and as strong as those produced by a printer on Earth.
The long-term goal is to create a space-based machine shop for astronauts. If all goes well with this experiment, then NASA will move on to a more elaborate next-generation printer called the Additive Manufacturing Facility. NASA plans to allow researchers and scientists outside of the space agency access to this next-gen printer.
While astronauts will probably be tempted to print out My Little Pony figurines and high-fashion shoes, the printer could eventually be used to create tools and parts to replace broken items. Looking even further down the space-road, 3D printers could be critical tools for long-term manned space expeditions to Mars.
"This means that we could go from having a part designed on the ground to printed in orbit within an hour [or] two from start to finish. The on-demand capability can revolutionize the constrained supply chain model we are limited to today and will be critical for exploration missions," Niki Werkheiser, NASA's 3D print project manager, said in a statement.