NASA to use 3D printing on International Space Station

NASA is sending a 3D printer into space for the first time, in the hope it will provide greater autonomy and flexibility for astronauts.

The printer, which is only the size of a microwave, has been developed in collaboration with Made In Space and was demonstrated at last month's 3D Printing in Zero-G event last month.

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On 19 September, the printer will be aboard the SpaceX-4 resupply mission of the International Space Station (ISS), as a way of testing microgravity 3D manufacturing technology.

The mission is the first step in realising NASA's goal of creating a working "machine shop" in space. Previously, if astronauts needed new or replacement equipment they would need to request supplies from Earth.

"Now, rather than wait for a resupply ship to bring me a new tool, in the future, I could just print it," said astronaut, TJ Creamer.

Estimates suggest that it could take between 15 minutes and an hour to 3D print a part on board the station. Manufacturing designs could be transmitted from Earth to the station, with the machine also controllable from ground control at Marshall's Operations Support Centre.

Niki Werkheiser, NASA's 3D print project manager said that it would be possible to have a part designed on the ground and printed in orbit within an hour or two from start to finish.

"The on-demand capability can revolutionise the constrained supply chain model we are limited to today and will be critical for exploration missions," she said.

If the 3D printing trial is successful, it could pave the way for longer-term mission beyond low-Earth orbit.

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NASA and Made In Space expect 3D printing to serve future explorations to asteroids, Mars and beyond. Recent reports that the US military is experimenting with 3D printing food also suggest that the technology could play a vital role in upcoming missions.