NASA preparing to launch 3-D printer into space (Update)

Sep 29, 2013 by Martha Mendoza
Aaron Kemmer, CEO and co-founder of Made in Space, looks through some items made with the company's 3D printer which will eventually be used in space on Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, in Mountain View, Calif. One of the biggest obstacles to space exploration is that you need to bring everything with you: tools, equipment, spare parts, satellites. NASA is working with a Silicon Valley company to make specialized 3D printers that would allow astronauts to produce the things they need on-demand when they're in space, allowing them to travel farther from the Earth. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

NASA is preparing to launch a 3-D printer into space next year, a toaster-sized game changer that greatly reduces the need for astronauts to load up with every tool, spare part or supply they might ever need.

The printers would serve as a flying factory of infinite designs, creating objects by extruding layer upon layer of plastic from long strands coiled around large spools. Doctors use them to make replacement joints and artists use them to build exquisite jewelry.

In NASA labs, engineers are 3-D printing small satellites that could shoot out of the Space Station and transmit data to earth, as well as replacement parts and rocket pieces that can survive extreme temperatures.

"Any time we realize we can 3-D print something in space, it's like Christmas," said inventor Andrew Filo, who is consulting with NASA on the project. "You can get rid of concepts like rationing, scarce or irreplaceable."

The spools of plastic could eventually replace racks of extra instruments and hardware, although the upcoming mission is just a demonstration printing job.

"If you want to be adaptable, you have to be able to design and manufacture on the fly, and that's where 3-D printing in space comes in," said Dave Korsmeyer, director of engineering at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, about 35 miles south of San Francisco.

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.

All of them, however, were built for use on Earth, and space travel presented challenges, from the loads and vibrations of launch to the stresses of working in orbit, including microgravity, differing air pressures, limited power and variable temperatures.

As a result, NASA hired Silicon Valley startup Made In Space to build something entirely new.

Tools and parts made by a 3D printer are displayed at Made in Space on Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, in Mountain View, Calif. One of the biggest obstacles to space exploration is that you need to bring everything with you: tools, equipment, spare parts, satellites. NASA is working with a Silicon Valley company to make specialized 3D printers that would allow astronauts to produce the things they need on-demand when they're in space, allowing them to travel farther from the Earth. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

"Imagine an astronaut needing to make a life-or-death repair on the International Space Station," said Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made in Space. "Rather than hoping that the necessary parts and tools are on the station already, what if the parts could be 3-D printed when they needed them?"

When staffing his start up in 2010, Kemmer and his partners warned engineers there would be ups and downs—nauseating ones. In more than a dozen flights in NASA's "vomit comet" reduced-gravity aircraft, Made In Space scientists tested printer after printer.

Last week at their headquarters on NASA's campus, Made In Space engineers in lab coats and hair nets tinkered with a sealed 3-D printer in a dust free cleanroom, preparing the models for further pre-launch tests.

As proof of its utility, the team revisited the notorious 1970 moon-bound Apollo 13 breakdown, when astronauts were forced to jerry-rig a lifesaving carbon dioxide filter holder with a plastic bag, a manual cover and duct tape. A 3-D printer could have solved the problem in minutes.

"Safety has been one of our biggest concerns," said strategic officer Michael Chen. Sparks, breakages and electric surges can have grave consequences in the space station. "But when we get it right, we believe these are the only way to manifest living in space," he said.

Space-bound printers will also, eventually, need to capture gasses emitted from the extruded plastics, be able to print their own parts for self-repairs and have some abilities to recycle printed products into new ones.

Scott Crump, who helped develop 3-D printing technology in 1988 by making a toy frog for his daughter with a glue gun in his kitchen, said he never conceived how pivotal it could be for space travel. But he said that until metal becomes commonly used in 3-D printers, the applications will be limited.

"The good news is that you don't have to have this huge amount of inventory in space, but the bad news is now you need materials, in this case filament, and a lot of power," he said.

Project manager Matthew Napoli, left, and director of research and development Michael Snyder test a 3D printer which will eventually be used in space on Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, at Made in Space in Mountain View, Calif. One of the biggest obstacles to space exploration is that you need to bring everything with you: tools, equipment, spare parts, satellites. NASA is working with a Silicon Valley company to make specialized 3D printers that would allow astronauts to produce the things they need on-demand when they're in space, allowing them to travel farther from the Earth. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

NASA and other international space agencies are pressing forward with 3-D printing. Mastering space manufacturing, along with finding and producing water and food on the moon or other planets, could lead to living on space.

Last month, the space agency awarded Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited $500,000 toward a project to use 3-D printing and robots to build massive antennas and solar power generators in space by 2020. It replaces the expensive and cumbersome process of building foldable parts on Earth and assembling them in orbit.

For Made In Space's debut, when it's shuttled up to the space station aboard a spaceflight cargo resupply mission, the initial prints will be tests—different small shapes to be studied for strength and accuracy. They're also discussing with NASA about what the first real piece that they should print will be.

Whatever it is, it will be a historic and symbolic item sure to end up in a museum someday.

"It's not something we're discussing publicly right now," said CEO Kemmer. Then, Jason Dunn, the chief technology officer, beckoned, dropping his voice as he grinned.

"We're going to build a Death Star," he joked softly, referring to the giant space station in the "Star Wars" movies that could blow up planets. "Then it's all going to be over."

Explore further: NASA prepares for 3-D manufacturing in space

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User comments : 9

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Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Sep 29, 2013
A 3-D printer could have solved the problem in minutes.


Rather, in hours, because it still takes 5-10 hours to print objects the size of your fist on an FDM printer.
Egleton
1 / 5 (4) Sep 29, 2013
People keep telling me how things are now, in much the same way people told each other that horseless carriages could only go 5 mph.
My little grizzle wont stop them.
This is how it is going to be (No not now, silly, in the future):
The world population doubles every 35 years. In too few years the population will be 4 times bigger than when I was born.
Either we have an epic die-off or we leave the planet en-mass. (No-not now, silly, in the not too distant future.)
We will need really good robots, really big printers, solid state nuclear fusion and we will need to free our thinking from the tyranny of the Left Brain's rationalizations of its failed models.
The hardest of these is the last. It needs medical intervention to destroy the Ego and its knee-jerk defensiveness.
DMT is a good place to start.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (4) Sep 30, 2013
This is how it is going to be (No not now, silly, in the future):

I'll give you a different scenario:

We'll develop houshold 3D printers that are capable of atomic resolution printing along with distributed/personal power generation. What this means that you can now print food (or anything else) given a handful of dirt.
Population will stagnate or drop (as the need to have a lot of offspring to secure your needs in old age is now eliminated)
Economy, as we know it, ceases to exist.

No, we won't leave the planet en masse. There's really no point fo the mass of people to go anywhere (and where to in any case?)...at least in biological form.

As for the article: 3D printers will change space exploration, as it will allow us to send adaptable probes to destinations - manufacturing what is needed as the environment there dictates.
Kedas
1 / 5 (5) Sep 30, 2013
They always need the highest most expensive standards for space and now just a 3D printer part will do fine. yeah right.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Sep 30, 2013
If you need a spanner up there then you might as well send the best possible spanner, as the cost of sending it up is a lot more than the cost of the spanner itself.
And you'd look the fool if you sent up a cheap one just to save a few cents and it breaks - requiring you to send a replacement on the next supply run.

With printed parts it doesn't matter as much - as you just send the raw material. Right now you have to pack tools/parts for every eventuality (sterilizing each part, packaging each part, ... ). The savings in not having to do that anymore will be enormous.

just a 3D printer part will do fine.

3D printer parts need not be low quality. A business partner of ours 3D prints hip implants from titanium powder (which are considered superior, albeit more expensive, to those of competitors because they aren't stock parts but can be printed in an optimal shape for the individual patient anatomy)
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (6) Sep 30, 2013
Where are the progressives clamoring how this will lead to astronauts going Navy ship yard and printing out a Glock and shooting holes in the capsules?
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (4) Sep 30, 2013
A business partner of ours 3D prints hip implants from titanium powder
Erm do you have a link to this manufacturer? All I can find is this
http://www.youtub...1zNKFcdI

-where they print a model of the joint and then send it to a manufacturer who fabricates the joint out of metal. As far as I know we cant yet print things like spanners and gun barrels and bearings which can withstand the stress of tempered, case-hardened steel.

There is this
http://www.renish...s--15240

-for printing porous implants, but again I dont see where they could withstand the stress encountered with hip bones.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (1) Oct 01, 2013
Here's a paper on the subject (it's in german, but the title is translated into english just below the german title.)

http://www.degruy...E9F97245

The manufacturer is mentioned in the introduction part (Brehm).

The implant stability is on a par with those created via forging.
We've been there to visit (as it's just a few kilometers from here) and the setup is pretty impressive (and deceptively simple).
Eikka
not rated yet Oct 01, 2013
3D printer parts need not be low quality.


That depends on what you mean by quality. FDM printed plastic parts for example are typically 30% the strenght of injection molded parts because the polymer chains are layered instead of intermixed and tangled together homogenously.

That's not low quality per se - quality depends on the application and the requirements you place on the parts.

With printed parts it doesn't matter as much - as you just send the raw material.


As the cost of sending mass up there is still the major issue, wasting material on a poorly built part, or needing more material because of strenght issues, is still going to cost a lot of money.

The part still costs its weight in gold to have in space, regardless of it being printed there, unless you can avoid rocketing up the materials.

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