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"Houston, we don't have a problem" – Zero-gravity 3D printing heads for space


June 9, 2013

Made in Space was first tested aboard a cargo plane using parabolic flights to achieve zero gravity (Photo: Made in Space)

Made in Space was first tested aboard a cargo plane using parabolic flights to achieve zero gravity (Photo: Made in Space)

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Imagine the first manned mission to Mars is three months out from Earth when a one-of-a-kind vital component fails. Today, such an accident would mean a choice between desperate invention and death, but it may not be too long before astronauts will just download a file and print out any part as needed. Turning such a potential drama into a simple task is the goal of NASA and Made in Space Inc., whose plan is to send a 3D printer to the International Space Station (ISS) next year as part of demonstration to show the potential of the technology.

The 3D Printing in Zero G Experiment or 3D Print is the first device for 3D printing in space. Built by Californian company Made in Space, it’s based on the standard principle of extrusion additive manufacturing that creates objects by adding layers of polymers, ceramics, metals or other materials. Though it’s not specified which material will be used in the space experiment, it’s likely to be a polymer, as it is relatively easy to handle without a substratum of powder to support it as the layers are built up (which would add an additional degree of difficulty in zero gravity).

NASA and Made in Space have big plans for 3D printing in the conquest of space. “Imagine an astronaut needing to make a life-or-death repair on the International Space Station,” says 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 3D printed when they needed them?”

NASA one day sees the technology used to build tools and components so routinely that they could be recycled and printed over and over to save weight. Beyond that, 3D printing one day could build not only parts, but whole devices, nanosatellites and even complete spaceships. It might even be used by robot pioneers to build colonies on the Moon or Mars before settlers arrive.

Since 3D Print has yet to be tested in orbit, all of that is in the longer term future. In the short term, more realistic goals take advantage of the strengths of 3D printing. Traditionally, making a one-off of a part is a time consuming task. Using 3D printing makes this relatively easy and faster with minimal waste of raw materials. The process can also be automated and adjusting the job parameters is simple. According to Made in Space, the 3D printer will be suitable for repairing essential components, hardware upgrades, producing new hardware, building tools for emergencies and creating everything from small parts to major components.

"The 3D Print experiment with NASA is a step towards the future," says Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made in Space. "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. The first printers will start by building test items, such as computer component boards, and will then build a broad range of parts, such as tools and science equipment."

3D Print is currently undergoing certification and is scheduled to be shipped to the ISS on a US commercial resupply mission next year. The technology demonstration is aimed at confirming tests carried out on a series of parabolic flights in 2011 under NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, which used aerodynamic maneuver to briefly produce conditions of zero gravity inside a cargo plane.

Sources: NASA, Made in Space

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

So wait, does this mean that 3D printing can already be used to print electronics components ? Because that's something I've been wondering lately. It seems unlikely to me that we would already be able to print each and every parts needed to mount, for instance, our own toaster. Am I wrong ?

Michael José Martin

Its huge for manned space, awesome & for JPL to build satellites alone

Stephen Russell

Michael: we are nowhere near being able to print a working toaster. You could print the case with a metal sintering printer, probably, but the electronics would have to be made in several steps using conventional methods.

What this experiment will probably test is how zero gravity affects conventional 3d printing. I suspect they will try a filament-style 3d printer and see how it works.

Jon A.

Michael José Martin: I would have to agree with you. I'm an avid fan of 3d printing, but so far have not seen a device that can print with the resolution and disparate materials needed to create electronics. I saw something about a near term printer that could make the circuit boards complete with runs to mount components to though.

This one claims to have done it already: http://www.shapeways.com/blog/archives/1922-are-you-ready-to-3d-print-electronics-on-to-your-3d-printed-designs.html

This youtube also claims to have done it with a mod for the printbot: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCzmQLZKNA8


3D printing isn't just plastics and polymers any longer. Two technologies - DSLS for Direct Metal Laser Sintering, and SLS - for Selective Laser Sintering will soon revolutionise manufacturing as we know it. Zero-G definitely adds some complications to the process. The guys at Made In Space are really pushing the envelope. Wonder if they're privately held...


It must be remembered that gravity can be simulated through angular acceleration.

Metal components could be "printed" with a MIG welder.


Much like aluminum castings, polymer 3D printed components, e.g., gearboxes, hydraulic and pneumatic cylinders and pistons, roller and friction bearings, machine beds, etc., will require precisely machined flat or curved datum surfaces of bores, shafts, slides, etc.. -- hence, in addition to 3D printing, a long term space venture will need to include a portable, light-weight multi-axis CNC machining center.

Which leads to the more down-to-earth conclusion that the desktop 3D printer mass-market is deemed to create a parallel mass-market for light-weight desktop polymer CNC machining centers -- which, BTW, means that the announced manufacturing revolution will not take place before both desktop 3D printers and CNC machining centers will be available at your department store.


Of course, the first part to break down will be the 3D printer!!

The second part to break down will be mission-critical.


T N Args

While this looks like a fairly easy experiment, I think it's interesting to think about the challenges and possible advantages with 3D printing in space... for instance, many have mentioned lack of gravity as a barrier to laser sintering (easily overcome by a porous substrate and an air pump, without messing around with any of the costly and complicated method above), but vacuum could potentially be a benefit to working with reactive materials, or materials with low melting points. it could also mean that robots could position a substrate or platform and then release the material before printing (or that much more delicate "platforms" could be used). Most interesting would be solutions that "float" material to it's destination then melt it on once it gets there.


How long is 3D printing gonna take; Will there be printing time related issues? If the crew is in an emergency scenario, like say, similar to what Apollo 13 had to deal with, a long printing process just won't cut it. I've heard it can take six hours to print a 3D object, and, at least in Apollo 13's case, that time frame would have proved fatal. Unless of course, they can design in advance, and save time that way. Meaning the object will be ready to print the moment the problem presents itself. Either way, the potential is there. Good thing they are pursuing this approach.

Nitrozzy Seven
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