Nasa to test 3-D printer as flying supply factory in space

Launch next year to test how device does in creating objects from spools of plastic strands, with hopes it will reduce need to load up on supplies

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 October, 2013, 2:43am

Nasa is preparing to launch into space next year a 3-D printer, a toaster-sized device that greatly reduces the need for astronauts to load up with every tool, spare part or supply they might ever need.

The printers would serve as a flying factory of infinite designs, creating objects by extruding layer upon layer of plastic from long strands coiled around large spools.

Any time we realise we can 3-D print something in space, it's like Christmas
Inventor Andrew Filo

On earth, doctors already use them to make replacement joints and artists use them to build exquisite jewellery. In Nasa labs, engineers are 3-D printing small satellites that could shoot out of the space station and transmit data to earth, as well as replacement parts and rocket pieces that can survive extreme temperatures.

"Any time we realise we can 3-D print something in space, it's like Christmas," said inventor Andrew Filo, who is consulting with Nasa on the project. "You can get rid of concepts like rationing, scarce or irreplaceable."

The spools of plastic could eventually replace racks of extra instruments and hardware, although the upcoming mission is just a demonstration printing job.

"If you want to be adaptable, you have to be able to design and manufacture on the fly, and that's where 3-D printing in space comes in," said Dave Korsmeyer, director of engineering at Nasa's Ames Research Centre at Moffett Field, about 55 kilometres south of San Francisco.

For the first 3-D printer in space test slated for autumn next year, Nasa had more than a dozen machines to choose from.

All of them, however, were built for use on earth, and space travel presents challenges, from the loads and vibrations of launch to the stresses of working in orbit, including microgravity, differing air pressures, limited power and variable temperatures.

As a result, Nasa hired Silicon Valley start-up Made In Space to build something entirely new.

"Imagine an astronaut needing to make a life-or-death repair on the International Space Station," said Aaron Kemmer, chief executive officer of Made in Space. "Rather than hoping that the necessary parts and tools are on the station already, what if the parts could be 3-D printed when they needed them?"

When staffing his start-up in 2010, Kemmer and his partners warned engineers there would be ups and downs. In more than a dozen flights in Nasa's "vomit comet" reduced-gravity aircraft, Made In Space scientists tested printer after printer.

Last week at their headquarters on Nasa's campus, Made In Space engineers tinkered with a sealed 3-D printer in a dust-free clean room, preparing the models for further pre-launch tests.

As proof of its utility, the team revisited the 1970 moon-bound Apollo 13 breakdown, when astronauts were forced to jerry-rig a lifesaving carbon dioxide filter holder with a plastic bag, a manual cover and duct tape. A 3-D printer could have solved the problem in minutes.

"Safety has been one of our biggest concerns," said strategic officer Michael Chen. Sparks, breakages and electrical surges can have grave consequences in the space station. "But when we get it right, we believe these are the only way to manifest living in space," he said.

For Made In Space's debut, when it's shuttled up to the space station aboard a space-flight cargo resupply mission, the initial prints will be tests - different small shapes to be studied for strength and accuracy.

"It's not something we're discussing publicly right now," said CEO Kemmer about the first real piece the company will print. Then, Jason Dunn, the chief technology officer, said, dropping his voice as he grinned, "We're going to build a Death Star," referring to the giant space station in the Star Wars movies that could blow up planets. "Then it's all going to be over."