Printing in outer space may soon be a reality
Yes, if things go as per plan for Made in Space, a Silicon Valley start-up, printing space station tools in outer space may become a reality within the next couple of years. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has recently selected the start-up’s proposal to build a 3D printer that would work in outer space.
Why does printing in outer space makes sense? It’s obvious; it’s much more economical and far less time consuming. Consider this for instance. A tool breaks down in a station in outer space. An SOS is sent to the laboratory back on) Earth, somewhere in San Antonio stating “Send us the CAD file of tool no. AF3456.” And once the CAD file is received via e-mail, all that the space station crew requires is to print it.
Let’s face it; supplying spare parts and tools to the space station is expensive, especially when there is a dependence on other countries to get the job done. If a 3D printer is right there in the space station, all that the astronauts would require is a supply of materials (such as plastic or metals), and of course, a CAD file to print the space station parts. Isn’t it convenient? So, in a few years of time, spare parts, astronaut tools, even satellites and spacecrafts would be build in outer space, courtesy the Made in Space proposal.
But the conditions in outer space are much different than what we have on Earth. Therefore, to convert their vision into reality, the first thing Made in Space needs to do is to develop a 3D printer that works well in seemingly weightless conditions in the orbit. To our liking, the company is well on its way to do just that. They utilized the initial fundings that they received from NASA to test a prototype (a custom 3D printer) and several commercial 3D printers in a two-hour reduced gravity aircraft flight. And the outcome of the test was encouraging to say the least. What came out of the test was a small wrench, the first ever tool manufactured in partial gravity conditions.
Now the ever reliable workforce at Made in Space has embarked on a mission to create their own custom 3D printer. What they intend to create is a printer that would be capable of printing out a huge number of a space station’s $1-billion worth of spare parts. In fact, as per Jason Dunn, the CEO and co-founder of Made in Space, his company would eventually come up with a printer that could print one-third of those parts.
The Small Business Innovative Research proposal that the company submitted to NASA makes it eligible to receive upto $125,000 worth of funding for the government agency. If all goes well for the company, most certainly the first 3D printer with the Made in Space logo embossed on it would be sent to space by 2014.
Image by Mikel Vidal