Among the challenges that astronauts encounter when they work in space is that it can be difficult for them to acquire some of the tools and parts that they need. This problem, however, may soon be alleviated as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will send a specially-designed 3D printer for use by astronauts working at the International Space Station (ISS).

For the fourth NASA-commissioned cargo mission of the SpaceX to the ISS next week, the space transport services company's Dragon cargo spacecraft will be carrying over 5,000 pounds of supplies including what will become the first 3D printer in space.

The 3-D Printing In Zero-G Technology Demonstration, which was built by California-based company Made in Space, can operate at near-zero gravity and works by spraying layers of materials which eventually build up to form a three-dimensional object. The machine creates objects using heat-sensitive plastic that can be formed when the temperature reaches between 225 °C and 250 °C.

3D printing does not cause much problem on Earth but in space, issues such as the lack of gravity to pull down the layers pose problems. The team behind the printer, however, managed to come up with a workaround after testing the printer in an aircraft that flies in a parabola to simulate weightless conditions.

With the 3D printer aboard the ISS, astronauts will be able to create plastic objects such as parts and tools to replace broken ones instead of waiting for the next resupply mission. The printer will also be used to test how useful it can be and to identify problems that can provide helpful insights in the development of new machines.

"Whether it works fantastically or we have some issues, we're going to learn things that will play into the design of future machines," said Made in Space director of research and development Michael Snyder.

It isn't yet known what object will be first printed when the printer arrives at the ISS but the parts that are made on board will be delivered back to Earth so the performance of the printer can be assessed. The parts will also be used to determine whether these work as efficiently as the parts that are made on Earth.

"This demonstration is the first step towards realizing a machine shop in space, a critical enabling component of any Deep Space Mission," NASA said in a statement. "Data obtained in the comparison of Earth- and space-based printing are used to refine Earth-based 3D printing technologies for terrestrial and space-based applications."

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