The first 3D printer in space housed aboard the International Space Station (ISS) has run off its first object. The item was a faceplate embossed with "NASA and Made In Space, Inc" and is part of a NASA effort aimed at producing spare parts for long-range space flights and greatly simplifying mission logistics.
Built by Made in Space, the additive 3D printer aboard the ISS uses a relatively low-temperature plastic filament to build up objects one layer at a time, and has been modified to operate in weightlessness and meet space station safety standards.
The 3D Printing in Zero-G Technology Demonstration that saw the production of the first object 3D-printed in space was carried out by NASA astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore, who is the Expedition 42 commander. On November 17, he removed the printer from storage, installed it, and ran calibration tests with mission control over about three days. NASA says that the printing process itself was controlled from the ground to free the station crew for other tasks.
The first actual printing job was executed by a command from mission control on November 24, when the printer made a faceplate for its extruder casing. According to NASA, this not only demonstrated that the printer worked in zero g, but that it could create its own spare parts. Though the first print was successful, the part adhered to the tray, which may be due to the microgravity environment. This was not anticipated and NASA says that this effect will be studied further.
The ultimate goal of the experiment is to determine the feasibility of 3D printing in space as a way of replacing large stocks of spares with a supply of digital printing files and raw materials to fabricate parts as needed. To achieve this, getting the printer to make its own replacement parts, or even another printer, is a key capability.
NASA says that it will continue to fine tune the process as calibration tests continue. Meanwhile, the test pieces will be returned to Earth next year for detailed comparison with control objects printed out on an identical printer on the ground.
"The operation of the 3D printer is a transformative moment in space development," says Aaron Kemmer, chief executive officer of Made In Space. "We've built a machine that will provide us with research data needed to develop future 3D printers for the International Space Station and beyond, revolutionizing space manufacturing. This may change how we approach getting replacement tools and parts to the space station crew, allowing them to be less reliant on supply missions from Earth."
The video below outlines the 3D printing experiment on the ISS.