Astronauts aboard the ISS will soon be experimenting with additive manufacturing in microgravity, with the installation of the very first 3D printer in space.
Commander Barry Wilmore unpacked and installed the printer, built by Made in Space and about the size of a small microwave oven, in the Microgravity Science Glovebox on board the space station's Destiny module, over the course of Monday, November 17.
This is the next step towards self-sufficiency for the ISS: a 3D printer capable of operating in microgravity would be able to help the astronauts manufacture their own components and tools, right there on the station.
The 3D printer installed in the MSG isn't quite that printer yet -- the astronauts will be using it to test how well 3D printing works in microgravity, and whether the objects printed will be as accurate as those printed on Earth. The printer will use a relatively low-temperature plastic feedstock, while the MSG will keep the astronauts safe from any potential malfunctions.
The first phase of printing will include a series of engineering test coupons. These will be sent back to Earth to be compared with control samples made by the same printer while it was at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, before being sent up to the ISS.
"This is a very exciting day for me and the rest of the team. We had to conquer many technical challenges to get the 3D printer to this stage," said Made in Space lead engineer Mike Snyder. "This experiment has been an advantageous first stepping stone to the future ability to manufacture a large portion of materials and equipment in space that has been traditionally launched from Earth surface, which will completely change our methods of exploration."
Commander Wilmore also performed the first critical system checks on the printer to make sure that it is operating as it should. Hardware and software are both in full operating condition.