3D printing is awesome. We can use it in medicine; NASA wants to use it to build structures in orbit and on the moon. We are working on being able to print houses and even draw in 3D, not to mention printing invisibility cloaks. The next leap in 3D printing technology is set to take place later this month as the worlds first space-capable 3D printer is put into orbit.
The test device will run on the International Space Station and is set to leave our planet on September 19. If successful (and even if it fails), the printer will help to lay the foundation for a generation of spacefaring printers. Needless to say, the ability to print things on demand in space would be handy.
"The on-demand capability would revolutionize the constrained supply chain model we are limited to today and will be critical for exploration missions," which was said by Nik Werkheiser, who is the manager of NASA's "3D Printing in Zero-G" project.
NASA has teamed up with Made in Space (a California based start-up) to develop these 3D printers. The printer going to the ISS later this month is about the size of a microwave.
For anybody who has ever seen Star Trek, the advantages to having the ability to "replicate" materials in space are beyond measure. Depending on the needed item, astronauts could actually print their own tools and equipment on the station, without the need for a resupply shuttle. Astronauts are constantly in need of things, as T.J. Creamer (an astronaut who inhabited the ISS between 2009 and 2010) elaborates, "I remember when the tip of a tool broke off during a mission. I had to wait for the next shuttle to bring me a new one, in the future, I could just print it."
The printer being sent to the ISS will probably take between 15 and 60 minutes to print something, depending on the item. Astronauts and engineers would be able to upload blueprints to the printer as they discover the need for one item or another. Its versatility is endless. Basically, it means the astronauts could wait as little as a few hours for a new part to be designed, uploaded, and printed.
This technology would have obvious repercussions for deep space exploration, as humans look to other planets, bodies, and stars to explore. We'll wait with bated breath to see the results of the tests run on the 3D printer going to the ISS on the 19th.