Astronauts prepare to print in space
The first ever 3D to be flown to space could change the way NASA does business aboard the space station.
Researchers hope to show a 3D printer can work normally in space and produce parts as good as those printed on the ground.
Testing this on the station is the first step toward creating a working ‘machine shop’ in space. This may decrease cost and risk on the station, will be critical when explorers venture far from Earth and will create an on-demand supply chain for needed tools and parts.
If the printer is successful, it will not only serve as the first demonstration of additive manufacturing in microgravity, but will bring NASA a step closer to evolving in-space manufacturing for future missions to destinations such as an asteroid and Mars.
Long-term missions would benefit greatly from onboard manufacturing capabilities. Data and experience gathered in this demonstration will improve future 3D manufacturing technology and equipment for the space programme, allowing a greater degree of autonomy and flexibility for astronauts.
“I remember when the tip broke off a tool during a mission,” recalls NASA astronaut TJ Creamer, who flew aboard the space station during Expedition 22/23 from December 2009 to June 2010.
“I had to wait for the next shuttle to come up to bring me a new one. Now, rather than wait for a resupply ship to bring me a new tool, in the future, I could just print it.”
So, if something breaks, like a wrench for instance, how long will it take to print one? It depends on the size and complexity of the part. Depending on these factors, it can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to print a part on the station. The computer-aided design model, which serves as the instructions, can be pre-loaded on the printer or uplinked from the ground to the station printer. It requires minimal crew time as it can be operated primarily from ground control at Marshall’s Operations Support Center.
“This means that we could go from having a part designed on the ground to printed in orbit within an hour to two from start to finish,” said Niki Werkheiser, NASA’s 3D print project manager.
“The on-demand capability can revolutionize the constrained supply chain model we are limited to.”
Nasa’s 3D printer gets hooked up while orbiting the Earth.