One of the problems with deep space missions is that you can’t exactly get a repairman to come out and fix a broken piece of a spacecraft when when it’s at, say, Jupiter. But this lack of interplanetary repairmen might soon be a problem of the past. NASA has just successfully 3-D printed the first objects in space.
This space-based 3-D printer was installed aboard the International Space Station on November 17. It uses a process called additive manufacturing. Plastic material is heated and built up, layer by layer, following a design file uploaded into the printer. The end result, after the plastic has cooled, is a solid and usable part.
After a series of calibration tests in the form of commands from the ground, the printer layered its first object on November 24: a faceplate of the extruder’s casing. It’s a piece of the printer, which is a good place to start when you’re talking about 3-D printing for deep-space repairs. If you’re going to rely on a machine, that machine will have to fix itself so it can keep printing the tools and parts to replace other machines.
But there are still some things to learn about 3-D printing in space. After this first test print, Expedition 42 commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore found that the 3-D printed part was pretty firmly stuck to the tray. It’s possible that layer bonding works differently in microgravity.
Getting to the point of on-demand 3-D printing any part or any tool in space is going to demand a bit of a learning curve. More calibration and printing tests will gradually solve the unknowns of 3-D printing in space, ultimately leaving us with a reliable version of the technology.
Still, this first step is a step in the right direction. 3-D printers could solve a lot, though not all, of the problems associated with deep space missions. Those pesky human problems like radiation exposure might take a little more than a 3-D printer to solve.
Feature image via NASA (You Tube)