NASA is preparing to launch a 3D printer into space next year a toaster-sized game changer that greatly reduces the need for astronauts to load up with every tool, spare part or supply they might ever need. The printers, which would serve as a flying factory of infinite designs, creating objects by extruding layer upon layer of plastic from long strands coiled around large spools.
Doctors use them to make replacement joints and artists use them to build exquisite jewellery. In NASA labs, engineers are 3D printing small satellites that could shoot out of the Space Station and transmit data to earth, as well as replacement parts and rocket pieces that can survive extreme temperatures. The spools of plastic could eventually replace racks of extra instruments and hardware, although the upcoming mission is just a demonstration printing job.
For the first 3D printer in space test slated for fall 2014, NASA hired Silicon Valley startup Made In Space.
Last week at their headquarters on NASA’s campus, Made In Space engineers prepared the models for further pre-launch tests. As proof of its utility, the team revisited the notorious 1970 moon-bound Apollo 13 breakdown, when astronauts were forced to jerry-rig a lifesaving carbon dioxide filter holder with a plastic bag, a manual cover and duct tape. A 3-D printer could have solved the problem in minutes.
Apart from NASA, other international space agencies are also pressing forward with 3D printing. Mastering space manufacturing, along with finding and producing water and food on the moon or other planets, could lead to living in space.