The potential role of 3D printers in space has been an exciting concept. The machines could help pave the way for long-term space exploration because they give astronauts the ability to make what they need in space instead of bringing extra supplies onboard a space shuttle or depending on supply missions to restock necessities, both of which limit the time and distance missions can take on.
It means being able to fix things on the fly, create new parts and tools and make things as needs arise instead of trying to plan for everything. NASA is even exploring using moon rocks as a 3D printer material so that astronauts could build with the materials they have at hand.
Knowing that, it's pretty exciting that astronauts have officially made the first 3D printed object in space. The test was carried out aboard the International Space Station, which is serving as a laboratory for this technology in space.
"This first print is the initial step toward providing an on-demand machine shop capability away from Earth," said Niki Werkheiser, project manager for the International Space Station 3-D Printer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
The printer was installed in the ISS on November 17 by NASA astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore. After a couple of tests and some tweaking, the printer was ready to manufacture its first object: a faceplate of the extruder’s casing. Not fancy, but it proves that the 3D printer can not only make useful objects for the astronauts, it can make replacement parts for itself too.
The reasoning behind testing this first is that if 3D printers become critical parts of space exploration missions, printing parts for repairs for other tools and objects, they need to be able to make replacement parts for themselves too to keep the mission going.
3D printing, as is the case with other activities, is more difficult in space because of the effects of microgravity. Though the printing was successful, Wilmore noticed that the part adhesion on the tray was stronger than expected, which could mean layer bonding is different in microgravity. The team will have to figure out why and what to do about it with future printings.
The ground team is doing most of the work on these printings so that the crew can focus on their other tasks. The team in Alabama is monitoring the printing process and trying to learn what things are affected by microgravity and what things are just part of the fine-tuning process for a printer. When the parts come back to the ground, they'll analyze them and compare them to parts printed on Earth.
You can watch a video about the initial tests of the 3D printer below.