A few short weeks ago a SpaceX cargo craft carried a unique experiment: A 3D printer designed for space. Now it’s being installed.
The device was installed in the microgravity “glovebox” and will be used to study the extrusion process in a weightless environment. The first items to be printed, as is the case on the ground, will be calibration “coupons” to ensure the device is operational and properly forming objects.
Once proven to work, the printer will produce a variety of test objects designed to check out various properties of micro-gravity-3D printed objects have predictable strength, flex and other engineering characteristics. These will be compared to control prints made on the ground to understand the differences between printing environments.
The 3D printer was produced by startup Made In Space. This is their first 3D printer in orbit, and if it succeeds, it won’t be the last.
No, they’re not yet printing usable objects. This is only a test to understand whether the technology works. If it does, one can easily imagine NASA equipping future spacecraft with 3D printers to enable part production onsite in space, thus avoiding the costs and delays of shipping parts by cargo craft to the space station. NASA could even transmit an entirely new design to the ISS for immediate production, a new capability for spacecraft.