Printing in Cosmic Conditions

Made in Space, a 3D printing startup, has provided an answer to NASA's problems with developing tools in theworks in microgravity on the International Space Station (ISS) by creating a material that can be printed within this difficult environment.

This new material is composed of polyetherimide/polycarbonate — known as PEI/PC, although it goes by the brand name ULTEM. PEI/PC is several times stronger than anything astronauts are currently using, and it is additionally "resistant to the UV environment, [and] resistant to atomic oxygen, so it can perform actual uses in space” according to Matt Napoli, Vice  President of Made in Space, explained to Popular Mechanics. This is the first material that can be used to 3D print tools in this environment that could then be used outside in the vacuum of space.

Currently, the company is testing a 3D printer called Archinaut, set for release in 2018, which they hope can operate fully in microgravity. Eventually, this could lead to Made in Space using the ISS as a launchpad for the first ever satellites 3D printed in orbit.

A Launchpad to the Future

Sending anything into orbit is dizzyingly expensive. To combat this, NASA has been looking for ways to produce materials for upgrades or repairs in space. But, until now, it has been a challenge to 3D print in the microgravity environment of the ISS — namely, the ABS and Green PE materials, which are not very resilient.

Made in Space will facilitate astronauts taking far less into space, because currently, they must transport all materials and items with them from Earth. This will save future missions countless dollars which can better be used in research and development.

The printer, however, has the potential to not only be reparative but progressive. As Made in Space's website states, they "give researchers the ability to prototype tools and designs in the environment of space with short iteration cycles."

3D printing is currently being used for more and more vital and creative things. The technology has the potential to create organs like hearts, restore coral reefs, and even build homes in a single day. Welcome to the golden age of material development.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated. A previous version stated that the 3D printer functioned in the vacuum of space.  This has been corrected to state that the 3D printer functions in the microgravity environment aboard the ISS.

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