First zero-gravity 3D printer heads to International Space Station

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The Made In Space Zero-G printer is being launched to the International Space Station

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3D printing is revolutionizing the way we manufacturer products in all sorts of industries, including retail and automotive. Now, a firm is looking to take 3D printing into space, literally. Made In Space has created a Zero-G 3D printer that will launch to the International Space Station tomorrow.

Made In Space was founded in 2010 and has been working towards certification for its Zero-G 3D printer. The company says that the Zero-G is the first 3D printer designed to operate in zero gravity and that it has carried out over 30,000 hours of testing, including more than 400 microgravity parabola flights aboard a modified Boeing 727.

The Zero-G is an extrusion printer that builds up layers of hot liquefied acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic to create an object. A number of factors had to be taken in consideration for designing it to work in a zero-gravity environment. Components that might previously have been even partly held in place by gravity had to be redesigned, thermal processes had to be recalculated and the layering process had to be reconsidered. In addition, the printer had to be built with "extreme safety precautions" in mind.

Made In Space states that by manufacturing items in space instead of launching them from Earth, our development in space can be accelerated and broadened. On a practical level, the cost of launching a spacecraft with countless spare parts onboard could be dramatically reduced, with NASA estimating that 30 percent of parts on the ISS could be 3D printed. In addition, many of the parts could be lighter through not having to withstand Earth's gravity prior to launch and the extreme g-forces during launch. For astronauts, meanwhile, the potential to print a component rather than hope that a spare part is available could be the difference between life and death.

"Everything that has ever been built for space has been built on the ground," says Made In Space CEO Aaron Kemmer. "Tremendous amounts of money and time have been spent to place even the simplest of items in space to aid exploration and development. This new capability will fundamentally change how the supply and development of space missions is looked at."

The Zero-G printer will be used by NASA to build parts and tools for the ISS, to research the long-term effects of microgravity on 3D printing, and to develop an understanding of the role that 3D printing can play in the future of space exploration. The printer is planned for launch aboard a rocket from Cape Canaveral at at 2:14 am local time on Saturday. A second Made In Space 3D printer is planned for full-time installation on the ISS from 2015.

The video below provides an overview of the Made In Space Zero-G printer project.

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