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3D printing and space, together at last

NASA is sending a 3D printer into space to manufacture parts in zero G.

(Credit: Made In Space)

NASA is sending a 3D printer into space to manufacture parts in zero G.

Space exploration would suddenly become a lot more accessible if astronauts could manufacture parts and equipment while they were up there, rather than relying on supply shuttles. It may or may not be quicker, depending on the size of the required part; but it could very possibly work out less expensive and free up space on shuttles for necessities such as food.

The current crop of 3D printers on the market seems dependent on gravity; but, as it turns out, NASA has been experimenting with 3D printing in microgravity since August 2011 to determine whether the extrusion method can be made to work in a low gravity environment. The answer, it appears, is in the affirmative: the space agency is about to deploy a 3D printer to the International Space Station for testing in zero G as the next step in the experiment.

"As NASA ventures further into space, whether redirecting an asteroid or sending humans to Mars, we'll need transformative technology to reduce cargo weight and volume," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "In the future, perhaps astronauts will be able to print the tools or components they need while in space."

(Credit: Made In Space)

We've already seen a gravity-defying 3D printer, but the 3D printers in question is being custom designed for the 3D Printing in Zero-G project, by a new collective of space and 3D printing experts. Called Made In Space, it was founded in 2010 out of a NASA Ames program at Singularity University and includes co-founder of Bespoke Innovations Scott Summitt, who has 20 years in the 3D printing industry; Director of Strategic Research of Autodesk Gonzalo Martinez; Planetary Resources President Chris Lewicki; three-time Astronaut Dan Barry; and entrepreneurs Aaron Kemmer, Jason Dunn and Michael Chen.

The aim, of course, is to research how 3D printing works in space, including the long-term effects of microgravity on 3D printing, and demonstrating that 3D printing in space is useful by building necessary components and performing repairs.

"The 3-D Print experiment with NASA is a step towards the future," said Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made in Space. "The ability to 3-D print parts and tools on demand greatly increases the reliability and safety of space missions while also dropping the cost by orders of magnitude. The first printers will start by building test items, such as computer component boards, and will then build a broad range of parts, such as tools and science equipment."

The printer itself will be sent up to the ISS sometime in 2014.