A 3D printer aboard the International Space Station (ISS) has now completed its first round of projects, turning out 14 items for use by space travelers aboard the orbiting outpost, constructed from 25 pieces.
The Made in Space Zero-G 3D printer arrived at the space station on September 23, 2014, and was activated on November 17.
"Contracted as the '3D Printing in Zero-G Experiment,' this first version of the Zero-G printer will begin the era of off-world manufacturing. This initial version of the Zero-G Printer will serve as a test bed for understanding the long-term effects of microgravity on 3D printing, and how it can enable the future of space exploration," Made In Space officials wrote in a press release.
The 3D printer successfully carried out each project assigned to it.
Among the items printed by space travelers aboard the ISS were a face plate for the printer itself, to serve as a replacement piece, created on November 24, 2014. A connector and spacer for tiny Cubesats was also produced, along with a specimen container.
When Barry "Butch" Wilmore told NASA officials he needed a wrench, space agency officials emailed him a design, which was later made public.
"3D printing serves as a fast and inexpensive way to manufacture parts on-site and on-demand, reducing the need for costly spares on the International Space Station and future spacecraft. Long-term missions would benefit greatly from having onboard manufacturing capabilities," NASA officials wrote in a press release.
Printing items as they are needed would not only save weight (and costs) on future missions, but would also allow space travelers to create new devices designed on Earth, and delivered through email. This could even be used to manufacture items not even designed when the spacecraft left the Earth, potentially thwarting disaster.
On April 13, 1970, Apollo 13 was on the way to the Moon with three astronauts aboard, when an oxygen tank exploded, threatening the lives of the men in the spacecraft. With inadequate supplies of filters to scrub carbon dioxide from the air, the crew had to devise a makeshift adapter from duct tape and plastic bags to utilize cannisters aboard the service module. If 3D printing technology existed then, astronauts could have simply manufactured a perfectly-fitted adapter.
"This is the first time we've ever used a 3D printer in space, and we are learning, even from these initial operations. As we print more parts, we'll be able to learn whether some of the effects we are seeing are caused by microgravity or just part of the normal fine-tuning process for printing," Niki Werkheiser, project manager for the International Space Station 3D Printer, said.
Items printed in space aboard the International Space Station will be returned to Earth, where the products will be compared to similar objects created by 3D printers on Earth.