Leadership in Space

First Zero-G 3D Printer Is On Its Way To The Space Station

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This 3D printer will be making parts on board the International Space Station (Credit: Made In Space)

On Tuesday morning, a SpaceX Dragon capsule will berth with the International Space Station. Included in its nearly 2 and a half tons of cargo is a first for the final frontier – a 3D printer. This 3D printer was developed by a small startup, Made In Space, which was founded in 2010 and incubated atSingularity University. Since 2011, the company has been actively working on development of their printer with NASA. The company has also received $824,597 in Small Business Innovation Research grants from NASA.

In 2013, NASA awarded Made In Space a Phase III Sole Source contract to build a 3D printer to send to the International Space Station – the printer that’s on its way to the station right now. The purpose of this printer is the demonstrate that 3D printing can work on board the station. If so, NASA intends to use its printer for experimental purpose with an eye to one day printing parts for the station on-demand.

As you might imagine, 3D printing poses some special challenges when you try to do it in zero gravity. “There are two main categories of problems,” Brad Kohlenberg, a Business Development Engineer at the company told me. “First is just making work. Second is making it safe in a closed loop environment.” The safety issue is the simple fact that when a 3D printer creates objects from its plastics, it will “off-gas” – emitting toxic gasses into the local air. This isn’t a problem on Earth, where doors, windows and HVAC systems allow those gases to diffuse safely. On the space station, however, the atmosphere is strictly controlled and this becomes a real problem. To solve that problem, the company has developed an environmental control unit that filters out harmful gasses and nanoparticles produced during the printing process. It’s so efficient, in fact, that the filter all by itself can purify a room on Earth.

“We’re actually in talks with other manufacturers about spinning that off,” Kohlenberg told me. “Doing crazy things that even if you fail to meet your goal, you could revolutionize another industry.”

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Made In Space tests its 3D printer on a microgravity parabolic flight.

In terms of making the 3D printer, the company also had to reinvent new mechanisms to replace belts, gears and other normal 3D printer parts that require gravity to work. The company tested the efficacy of their solutions on zero-G parabolic flights and passed a key test in that regard in the summer of 2013. Once the 3D printer has been installed on board the International Space Station, astronauts there will then begin a series of tests that ensure the 3D printer works the way it’s supposed to. Though those first prints won’t be anything exciting.

“Ultimately the first prints will be ‘test coupons’ that don’t really look like anything,” Kohlenberg said. “They’re unique geometries that test tensile strength and other material properties. After that, the first real objects will be printed.”

If the test printer is successful, the next step for the company is to launch a much bigger 3D printer onto the space station that has more capabilities. And while that first printer will belong to NASA under its contract, this second one will belong to Made In Space, which it will use for commercial purposes. When those commercial prints begin, Kohlenberg said, is when things will start to get interesting. That’s because when you build something in microgravity and it’s intended to stay in microgravity, it’s possible to build entirely new types of structures that wouldn’t survive on Earth.

“For the first time,” Kohlenberg said. “Companies will be able to build things in space for space.”

Here is a quick video about Made In Space’s project:

(Video Credit: High Impact Creative/CASIS)

by Alex Knapp, Forbes Staff
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