A few years ago, I wrote a post about how 3D printing would be essential for any sort of colonization efforts or long distance manned missions. Next month, Made In Space, a Silicon Valley tech start up, will deliver the first operational 3D printer that will operate on the International Space Station.
In September of 2014, the company launched its first experimental printer, the 3DP, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. This printer could only produce small items – up to 10cm long x 5 cm tall x 5 cm wide – and was only able to print using ABS. But it did prove out important aspects, such as keeping toxic gasses and small particles contained and remote control.
Their latest device, the Additive Manufacturing Facility, or AMF, has a print volume of 18cm x 14 cm x 10 cm. It can also print using ABS, high density polyeurathane (HDPE), and PEI/PC, a thermoplastic. The additional materials allow for a greater range of items to be built. The goal of this unit is to provide real plastic parts for experiments and the ISS, as well as to actually build certain equipment and experiments in orbit. When one considers that to get an experiment to the ISS can take years, and to get replacement parts months, at best, being able to simply send a data file and have parts printed in minutes represents a huge leap forward in flexibility of operating in space.
“If we’re going into the final frontier, SpaceX is building the covered wagon and we are building the pickaxes and other tools,” Made In Space CEO Andrew Rush said.
The company doesn’t plan to stop there. The plan is to have a printer, or series of printers, that operate in the vacuum of space, creating entire spacecraft from raw materials – potentially materials mined in space – see articles on space mining. As mentioned in my article on ESA’s moon base, it is planned to use 3D printing capability to build much of the facility using materials harvested on the moon.
Additionally, Made In Space plans to build a reclamation unit that can take previously printed items that have either outlived their usefulness or broken, and reclaim the material for use on new items.
About the same time I wrote my original article on 3D printing, NASA administrator Charles Bolden was expressing similar sentiments.
“As NASA ventures further into space, whether redirecting an asteroid or sending humans to Mars, we’ll need transformative technology to reduce cargo weight and volume. In the future, perhaps astronauts will be able to print the tools or components they need while in space.”
It looks like the future is now.
Image credits: Made In Space