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NASA's Zero Gravity 3D Printer Arrives in Space

NASA has taken a 3D printer into space! The Mark I version of the printer was successfully trialed by astronauts working in zero gravity conditions aboard a specially modified Boeing 727 aircraft.

Made in Space

The idea was the brainchild of Made in Space, a company with far reaching ideas. Jason Dunn, company co-founder, is certainly thinking of the future and insists that astronauts travelling to Mars, the Moon and to asteroids will soon have the technology with them to enable them to create new spare parts for their spacecraft as and when they need to by utilising a modified 3D printer.

Made in Space was founded in 2010 at Nasa Ames research centre in the United States’ Silicon Valley. In essence, the idea of making space craft parts using 3D printing technology is straightforward enough, after all DIY 3D printers are available for digital hobbyists and enthusiasts to purchase relatively cheaply on the open market and you can manufacture pretty much anything you want to as long as you have the right computer software and associated peripherals. However, zero gravity makes things somewhat trickier.

For a start, in zero gravity anything that isn’t fastened down will simply float away. This in itself presents enormous challenges. Cogs, gears etc. obviously need to move in order for the printer to function mechanically so they cannot be held completely rigid, but if something floats out of place by a nanometre, the print simply won’t work. Thermal properties are affected too which presented the Made in Space technicians with even more problems.

Zero G 3D printer installed on International Space Station

The finished space-ready 3D printer is slightly bigger than a standard shoe box. It has a metal frame with a glass panel which allows the astronauts a clear view of the printer’s functionality whilst it is operational. Made in Space reckon the printer will enable the space craft’s crew to print pretty much whatever they need from containers to pipework to tools.

At the risk of descending into fantasy, they also anticipate that one day in the future a scaled up version of their 3D printer will be capable of producing the component parts for colossal megastructures for erection on other planets, not to mention the construction of complete spacecraft from materials sourced from asteroids. And if this all sounds a tad Starship Enterprise to you, read on…

The Made in Space team’s prototype 3D printing equipment underwent zero and micro-gravity tests aboard the modified Boeing 727 and passed with flying colours. The tests have proven without doubt that the technology will work, not only in space but also on the Moon and even on Mars!

The finalised version of the 3D printer was installed on the International Space Station this week. Astronauts will be able to use the printer to make up to 30% of the spare parts which may be required on board and it is hoped that in the future, all replacement bits and pieces will simply be printed on board, on demand. The space and weight saving implications of this are huge as the need to carry potentially bulky spares is effectively now a thing of the past.

Image source: NASA

 

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Alison Page

About Alison Page

Alison is a small business owner, freelance writer, author and dressage judge. She has degrees in Equine Science and Business Studies. Read her full story at http://www.theladywriter.co.uk

Alison Page

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