One of the first 3D printers to be launched into outer space will be installed abroad the International Space Station towards the end of August, 2014 after the custom-built device satisfied NASA certification standards well-ahead of schedule earlier this week. The device was created and developed by Made in Space, which is an American technology firm that launched in the second quarter of 2010 with the ultimate goal of enabling manufacturing technologies in outer space. The 3D printer will be launched into outer space on the SpaceX CRS-4 ship: a simple resupply vehicle.
The Printer’s Journey
Once the printer has made it into outer space, the printer will be installed in the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG), which is found within the European Space Agency’s Columbus laboratory. There, it will be initially piloted to print a set of 21 demonstration parts to ensure that it is fully functional in its new surroundings, but preliminary testing shows that this shouldn’t be an issue for the printer as it has already passed testing requirements as laid out by NASA.
The Tests on Earth
The printer works like any other conventional 3D printer on the market today. It uses heated plastic molds to create objects on a layer-by-layer basis and it’s already undergone testing to ensure that these parts can be printed in a weightless environment. Initial testing revealed that it was able to print in complete weightlessness for up to 30 seconds at a time, which far exceeded NASA’s expectations.
The tests also showed that the printer will work in a microgravity environment, which is something that 3D printers aren’t able to do consistently as surface tension in a gravity-filled environment allowed the layers to form without air bubbles and other imperfections that could structurally weaken a finished product.
When there’s a lack of gravity in the environment, there’s also a problem for managing heat, which is something that the 3D printing process relies on heavily. Since there’s no natural convection, it’s believed that 3D printing is useless in an area where there’s limited heat management abilities. This is something that the minds at Made in Space have solved though, but they are choosing not to reveal the technology behind this solution to prevent leaking vital research and development plans to competitors.
The Tests in Outer Space
One of the main goals that NASA hopes to accomplish by launching the printer into outer space is to identify just how the printer is going to react with its new surroundings and to see how 3D printed materials change when they’re subject to the conditions in outer space. NASA’s overall goal is to have a fully-functional 3D printer installed by the first quarter of 2015, which is something that could very well happen with this product’s launch into outer space very soon!