3D printing in the vacuum of outer space

Although a 3D printer has already been used aboard the International Space Station, an upcoming one may be able to print items outside of it(Credit: Shutterstock)

Last November, California-based Made in Space grabbed headlines when one of its specially-designed 3D printers became the first such device to print an object in outer space ... that was within the protective confines of the International Space Station, however. Now, the company is working on a printer that will work outside the station, in the cold vacuum of actual outer space.

Made in Space has already created vacuum-compatible extrusion heads for its existing Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) 3D printer, which is the full version of the demo system that was used on the ISS in 2014 – plans call for the AMF to travel to the ISS later this year.

Those heads were tested over the course of a week in a vacuum chamber, where they successfully printed a variety of objects using aerospace-grade thermopolymers. Those items will be analyzed later this month, to see if they're structurally different from similar objects printed by the AMF at Earth atmosphere.

If all goes according to plan, the company hopes to be conducting on-orbit tests of its new technology within as little as 18 months.

"Soon, structures will be produced in space that are much larger than what could currently fit into a launch fairing, designed for microgravity rather than launch survivability," says chief engineer Mike Snyder. "Complete structural optimization is now possible in space."

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