Nasa is planning to launch a toaster-sized 3D printer into space next year to help astronauts manufacture spare parts and tools in zero gravity.
It will be the first time a 3D printer has been used in space and could help reduce the costs of future missions and saves time and energy of astronauts.
The goal of 3D printing is to take this capability to microgravity for use on the International Space Station. In space, whatever astronauts have available on orbit is what they have to use - but just like on Earth, parts break or get lost. When that happens, there's a wait for replacement parts, or the need to have multiple spares that have to be launched. The ability to conduct 3-D printing in space could change all of that.
3D printers use a technique called extrusion additive manufacturing to build objects layer by layer out of polymers, metals, composites and other materials.
For the first 3-D printer in space test slated for fall 2014, NASA had more than a dozen machines to choose from, ranging from $300 desktop models to $500,000 warehouse builders.
Made in Space's machine is slated to launch toward the orbiting lab in August 2014, in a collaboration with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center called the 3D Printing in Zero G Experiment.
"The 3D printing experiment with NASA is a step towards the future. The ability to 3D print parts and tools on-demand greatly increases the reliability and safety of space missions while also dropping the cost by orders of magnitude," said Kemmer.
"Imagine an astronaut needing to make a life-or-death repair on the International Space Station," said Aaron Kemmer, the company's chief executive.
"Rather than hoping that the necessary parts and tools are on the station already, what if the parts could be 3D printed when they needed them?"
In 1970, Apollo 13 astronauts had to cobble together a home-made carbon dioxide filter using a plastic bag, a manual cover and gaffer tape.
"If you want to be adaptable, you have to be able to design and manufacture on the fly, and that's where 3D printing in space comes in,'' said Dave Korsmeyer, director of engineering at Nasa's Ames Research Center.A 3D printer might have solved the problem in minutes and helped them reach the Moon.
Nasa is also experimenting with 3D printing small satellites that could be launched from the International Space Station and then transmit data to earth.