Last month, we told you about NASA's work with Made in Space to design a 3D printer that will operate in near-zero-gravity environments like the International Space Station. NASA wants to give astronauts quicker access to tools and replacement parts and lower fuel costs.
Now Made in Space has announced that the 3D Printing in Zero G Experiment device prototype has passed several initial tests required before it can be certified for flight. This device will be the first machine able to make parts in space. It uses a technology known as fused deposition modeling, in which plastic is deposited via a wire feed through an extruder head.
Made in Space deputy program manager Matthew Napoli examines a piece printed by the engineering test unit 3D printer, shown inside the Marshall Space Flight Center's Microgravity Science Glovebox. (Source: Marshall Space Flight Center)
In June, Made in Space said it believed the printer that goes to the space station next year will be able to make 30 percent of the spare parts astronauts will need, in addition to things like upgrades for experiments and specialized tools. Made in Space CTO Jason Dunn told us in July that the first 3D printer would use plastics, but the company is experimenting with and developing other materials to work in space.
The engineering test unit of the new 3D printer passed microgravity tests at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. To simulate conditions on the International Space Station, the printer flew on four microgravity flights, each two hours long. Made in Space evaluated its proprietary printer to ensure that layers would adhere, and that resolution and part strength would be maintained in the microgravity environment.
Next, the printer was shipped to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. Engineers put it through environmental testing and functional testing to ensure that the hardware could survive the rigors of being launched into space and operate properly in a microgravity environment. Launch conditions were simulated to make sure the unit could withstand sufficient vibration. The printer also went through acoustic and electromagnetic interference testing. All these tests will be repeated for the printer's next incarnation, the flight unit model.
Marshall Space Flight Center engineers also verified that the hardware will fit into and integrate with the Microgravity Science Glovebox. This nine-cubic-foot enclosure on the space station acts as a laboratory and helps ground-based scientists perform experiments in space.
The next stage in the testing, critical design review (CDR), is scheduled to start Aug. 15. Niki Werkheiser, 3D Print project manager at Marshall's Technology Development and Transfer Office, said in a press release that the engineering test unit's design must be considered 90 percent complete by NASA's CDR Standing Review Board to pass that stage.
Ann- I'm missing the challenge of this effort – it seems to me it would be a naturally incremental advancement to place any FDM apparatus into zero gravity. Consider even the lowest-end offering, such as the familiar MakerBOT. It is data-fed by a laptop, mechanically driven using direct geared servos (which are gravity agnostic) and thermally/chemically bonded between printed layers. The natural "stickiness" of each subsequently printed layer holds it naturally in "place" as it bonds and cools before the next subsequent layer is printed. The whole system seems naturally suited to adaptation into a zero-gravity environment. The one point that needs advancement could be the printed resolution. Where MakerBOT (and other FDM's) are typically .004", the more refined Objet LaserJet solids are 10x better, at about .0004". But that, too is a natural incremental advancement the FDM industry will pursue. Zero-Gravity seems like a freebie to me.
It's the first step to the StarTrek Replicator. (One Martini, extra dry, please).
Jim, nothing works in zero-G (actually, micro-G on the ISS, a plant or an asteroid) like it does in full 1G on Earth. Fluids don't flow right, and mechanics are completely different since force isn't the same. There's just as much effort involved in this project as in any other for an item that has to work "up there" for astronauts. Same goes for robotics, BTW, like the Mars and Moon rovers.
Understood. Experience teaches. The scenario I was considering was this: Astronauts in Gemini & early Apollo used to eat freeze-dried food; while later astronauts in Shuttle & Station missions enjoyed real food, such as broccoli with cheese sauce, whose natural "stickiness" kept food on a plate, keeping it from floating away.
Point being, the first-attempts always tend to start with extreme caution for prevention; then loosen as experience teaches.
IN the case of the FDM process for Zero-G, as your article eluded, the preliminary results are all very encouraging because the process seems to be working. As I eluded, I think it's a natural. But I understand your very logical explanation.
I only wish I had the chance to experience Space; I'm certain my perspective would change!
Jim, I'd like to go up there, too. I've been dreaming about it since I was a little kid. Re microG 3D printing, since the properties of 3D printer materials must have certain characteristics to work--both in the machine and in terms of how they build an object with the right specs--it may not be possible to make them much differently, and/or it can take a long time to figure out how to do so. Same goes for the machine itself. Actually, this design process has proceeded in the opposite direction from the one you suggest: it began with sending 3D printers designed to work on Earth into micro-G environments and seeing what happened, then designing a prototype somewhat like them and continually tweaking it to work in space.
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