Last week, NASA entered the second phase of its 3D printing program. On March 22, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket successfully launched a Cygnus spacecraft on a re-supply mission to the International Space Station.1 Aboard this re-supply craft was something pretty unique: a zero-g 3D printer. The 3D printer, actually the second version of the device, was built through a partnership between NASA and Made In Space, a Mountain View startup.
The idea behind the NASA/Made In Space collaboration is simple, as humanity looks to expand its reach beyond Earth, it will need to manufacture things: from replacement parts, to tools, and everything in-between. The execution of this idea, however, is not quite so simple. Since 2010, Made In Space has been working to perfect the Zero-G printer. In 2014, the company and NASA launched a prototype of the device. This prototype proved to be a success, leading to the production of the first 3D printed objects in space:
The prototype of the device was really more of a test of the functionality than anything else. However, the the second version of the Made In Space 3D printer has much more functionality. The newest version has the ability to print using more than 30 different materials, and can print much larger objects. The goal is to allow the crew to print tools and replacement parts for the station.
The technology will also be used for other projects outside the scope of tools and hardware. In fact, the company noted that they have already received numerous client commitments for various production projects:
The manufacturing facility is available to any individual or business hoping to test their hardware in microgravity (if they’re willing to fork over $6,000 to $30,000 a print, that is). Made In Space already has orders for medical devices, communication arrays, and even artwork—all of which will be put into functional use right away or stored in Ziploc bags for later.2
- The Atlas V rocket is one of the most used U.S. launch vehicles. It has carried such notable payloads as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the New Horizons Probe which performed a flyby of Pluto last year, and Juno which is en route to Jupiter. ▲
- Madison Kotack, Wired, “A Little 3-D Printer on the ISS Is a Huge Step for Space Exploration,” 22 March 2016 ▲