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