When you think about the International Space Station, chances are good that you think of materials like aluminum, gold foil, and specially designed radiation shielding.
You probably don’t think about plastic that much, or envision 3D printing playing much of a role. However, the first 3D printed object has just rolled off the ISS’s brand new 3D printer – a plastic faceplate needed to cover wiring on the printer itself, and demonstrating that the printer could be used to print replacement parts for itself.
The print was completed on November 24, 2014 and installed immediately after printing.
Of course, the International Space Station couldn’t make do with a MakerBot or any of the other available 3D printers. Space is a fickle environment, and zero gravity wreaks havoc with conventional extruder printers, as well as other forms of 3D printing. S
o, designers custom created a new type of printer for use aboard the ISS. However, it’s not as different as you might think. In fact, the space station’s printer used low-temperature plastic feedstock to create the faceplate, and will use the same materials for subsequent tests.
According to NASA’s Niki Werkheiser, this is the first step in creating a full-blown “machine shop away from Earth”. Such a machine shop would be absolutely essential for any deep space mission, as well as for a colonization effort, whether it was located on the Moon, on Mars, or on some far-flung planet outside our solar system.
NASA’s ground team is responsible for calibrating the printer and analyzing the results of each test and print. One of the surprising results of the initial faceplate print was the discovery that adhesion to the print tray was stronger than expected.
This brings up several important considerations, including the potential for layer bonding to be different in zero gravity conditions, as well as the need to come up with methods to deal with that problem in a variety of different situations (aboard spacecraft, as well as on planetary surfaces where gravity is weaker than Earth normal).
Ground team management of the printer is necessary for several reasons, including to minimize the amount of time the space crew needs to spend with the printer. They have plenty of regular responsibilities on their plates, after all. It’s also necessary so that the company working with NASA (Made in Space) can analyze print and test results, and develop new methods, techniques and technologies to evolve space-based 3D printing for future generations of printers.
The parts printed in space won’t stay there – they’ll be coming back planet side for a full analysis of their composition. Again, this is the first ever 3D print in space, and there are many potential unknowns to be discovered. It’s impossible to completely test 3D printing for space use on the planet’s surface because of variables like gravity, the difference in radiation levels and more.
This is only the first step, but it’s an impressive one. Eventually, 3D printing might be one of the core technologies responsible for allowing humans to explore the stars.