Ann R. Thryft

July 3, 2013

3 Min Read
NASA Builds 3D Printer for Space

After nearly two years of R&D, and testing several different commercial 3D printers in zero gravity, NASA has partnered with Made in Space to develop a 3D printer for space. The "3-D Printing in Zero G Experiment (3-D Print)" device will be the first machine to make parts in space, and will be used on the International Space Station (ISS).

Scheduled for certification and launch next year, the printer is an extrusion-based additive manufacturing machine, which deposits plastic via a wire feed through an extruder head. The technology is also known as Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM).

"The first version 3D printer we are developing with NASA is a typical extrusion-based technology which uses a variety of thermoplastics as feedstock," Made in Space CTO Jason Dunn told Design News in an email. "Today we are printing in ABS, but also experimenting with other materials, as well as developing our own unique materials suited for the space environment."

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This phase of the project, started last October at Marshall Space Flight Center, is operating under NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate. It aims to develop a zero-gravity 3D printer that astronauts can use on the ISS, or other locations within the solar system. The farther away from Earth the astronauts are, the more expensive it is in fuel costs to ship needed items when astronauts run out, and the longer it takes to get resupplied. Eventually, the printers could be used for making replacement parts, tools, instruments, housing structures, laboratories, and even small satellites.

In a separate project exploring how astronauts can build structures on the moon or Mars, NASA has worked with University of Southern California engineers. As we've told you before, those researchers are developing methods for making roads, landing pads, and other infrastructure for astronauts and even human settlers there, using Contour Crafting's fabrication robot. This robotic construction technology can use local materials, such as lunar soil, to build structures onsite.

Made in Space had already tested commercial printers and its own 3D Print prototype during 2011 in microgravity environments on suborbital flights, as we've previously reported. Included in these tests were a 3D Systems Bits from Bytes 3000 printer, another off-the-shelf printer from MakerBot, and a third printer Made in Space customized for making structures in space. AutoDesk, which worked with Made in Space to optimize space-based design principles, is a sponsor of the project, as is 3D Systems.

NASA has also funded other 3D printing research for use in space or outside Earth's orbit. For example, we've told you about Washington State University (WSU) engineers working with NASA who used an imitation moon rock material, lunar regolith simulant, to 3D print simple tools or replacement parts. This team used Laser Engineering Net Shaping (LENS) technology, specifically, the LENS-750 systems.

More recently, we reported on NASA's use of 3D printing to make metal engine parts. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center is using a selective laser melting (SLM) to make the parts for its Space Launch System (SLS) next-generation heavy-lift rocket, which will travel outside Earth's orbit.

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About the Author(s)

Ann R. Thryft

Ann R. Thryft has written about manufacturing- and electronics-related technologies for Design News, EE Times, Test & Measurement World, EDN, RTC Magazine, COTS Journal, Nikkei Electronics Asia, Computer Design, and Electronic Buyers' News (EBN). She's introduced readers to several emerging trends: industrial cybersecurity for operational technology, industrial-strength metals 3D printing, RFID, software-defined radio, early mobile phone architectures, open network server and switch/router architectures, and set-top box system design. At EBN Ann won two independently judged Editorial Excellence awards for Best Technology Feature. She holds a BA in Cultural Anthropology from Stanford University and a Certified Business Communicator certificate from the Business Marketing Association (formerly B/PAA).

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