November 25th 2014 was a day that marked history as NASA successfully 3D printed its First Object in Space, aboard the International Space Station.
This showed a lot of promise and hope on the feasibility of carrying out long term future space expeditions.
In the past, it has been nearly impossible to make long period journeys to space. NASA has had to fully rely on earth supplies to sustain astronauts in space. The challenge this had is high costs of getting necessary supplies from earth to astronauts in space.
This is why many space expeditions had to be as short-term as possible to reduce the number of trips necessary to get whatever is needed by astronauts from earth. Thanks to the recent developments; all this is about to change. The 3D printer was designed and built by Made in Space, a company that is working hand-in-hand with NASA in developing relevant 3D printers that can be fully functional in space.
Barry Wilmore, the commander of expedition 42; is the astronaut who tested the practicality of the Zero-G 3D printing technology. This first item that the printer created was a faceplate of its extruder’s casing. The faceplate had engravings written “NASA and Made In Space Inc”, as an honor to the first organizations to experiment on the capability of 3D printing to be done in Space.
NASA wanted to test whether this printer could be relied upon in the fabrication of spare parts by first and foremost, evaluating its ability to print its own parts.
This only made sense because in space astronauts need to be ready for all the possibilities. At the helm of it, they need to be certain that the 3D printer they have on board is capable of Printing its Own Parts if it has to. Successful printing of the faceplate proved that the printer was capable of fabricating quality parts in space at Zero gravity.
Space On-Demand Shop
Installation of the printer on the ISS began on November 17th and during the following few days a number of calibration tests were done to realign the printer. By November 20th, realigning was complete and the first printing commands by Made In Space controllers on the ground were sent to the printer on the 24th. The printer had finished printing the faceplate by the morning of the next day (November 25th).
Similar to many of the ordinary printers on earth, this printer uses the additive manufacturing process to create objects. Once the printing commands have been sent to the printer, the low-temperature plastic filament it uses is heated, melted and then extruded layer by layer in an additive manner until the entire object has been built. Each layer cools down quickly and another layer is simultaneously added on it in a continuous process.
Despite there still being a lot to be done, the success of this experiment was enough evidence to show that NASA’s ultimate goal of creating an On-Demand Space Shop was actually a possibility. It confirmed that with a little more research and experimentation, the overreliance on supply missions from earth could be significantly mitigated. Space mission logistics will greatly be simplified and no longer will long space expeditions be as costly as they previously were.
Instead of waiting on a supply mission from earth to bring back spare parts, replacing such spares will be as easy as simply having digital printing files that the printer could instantly use to create new robust spares.
2015 Analysis of Printed Faceplate
After the faceplate was printed, Wiltmore inspected it and noticed a stronger adhesion on the tray than what was expected. Niki Werkheiser, the project manager of the ISS’s 3D printer, explains that for this printer to be relied on by astronauts in space; it will be imperative that the printed objects meet all expectations.
For that reason, the faceplate will be returned back to earth in 2015 so that it can be analyzed alongside a faceplate that will be printed under earth conditions.
As this is done, the team of engineers from Made In Space will be able to tell if the evident differences were a result of microgravity in space or merely part of the effect of the fine-tuning process of the printer as it was adjusted to print objects in the space environment.
Before bringing the faceplate back to earth, the engineers have expressed their intentions of printing yet another object in space so that they can conduct correct assessment of the printing with zero-g technology once the objects are returned on earth.
The ground controllers make fine tuning adjustments prior to printing each object with the printer as this will go a long way in helping them have a better understanding of the adjustments and parameters that are imperative for the printer to impeccably create objects in space on the ISS.
Future 3D Printers for Space
According to the Chief Executive Officer of Made In Space, Aaron Kemmer, this ISS 3D printer has brought along a transformative moment, for it will be used to research on the requirements needed to create future 3D printers for space.
Due to the gravity conditions present in space, it is clear that common 3D printers that are used on earth cannot flawlessly function in the ISS. However, what has been lacking is a research source that engineers and scientists can use to design specialized kind of printers that can work in space.
Not anymore! This printer has solved the problem and will come in handy as more and more printers will begin to be built which can tolerate the conditions of space using it as the point of reference.
Much hope has been triggered by the experimentations of this printer as now more than ever, NASA managing to set their astronauts on long space journeys is proving to be a dream that can indeed come true. There is no telling what degree of good long focused space explorations can amount to. What’s for sure is this printer is the beginning of many new space discoveries by NASA.
Thanks for reading, but before you go feel free to check out this related post about NASAs Plans to 3D Print Food in Space.