Just after the major announcement from NASA that Boeing and SpaceX would be taking over the transport of astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX is already upping the ante.
According to Forbes, on Tuesday morning a SpaceX Dragon capsule will berth with the International Space Station, carrying the first 3D printer to venture into the final frontier!
A small start-up company called Made In Space developed this one-of-a-kind 3D printer. NASA gave the small start-up the project, along with $824,597 in Small Business Innovation Research grants to boot. Check out this video of Made In Space and their journey to the Space Station. And, if all goes according to plan, the printer will arrive this Tuesday and start printing parts for the ISS on demand. If this printer does its job, the limitations of human space exploration get a whole lot smaller!
Now as you can imagine, there may be some difficulties with 3D printing in zero gravity. “There are two main categories of problems,” Brad Kohlenberg, a Business Development Engineer at the company tells Forbes. “First is just making [it] work. Second is making it safe in a closed loop environment.”
The second problem is a very particular challenge to overcome and Made In Space believes they’ve created a very unique solution. Normally, when a 3D printer creates objects from its plastics it will “off-gas” – emitting toxic gasses into the local air. This isn’t a problem on Earth, where doors, windows and HVAC systems allow those gases to diffuse safely. On the space station, however, where the atmosphere is strictly controlled, this becomes a real problem.
In response to this challenge, Made In Space developed an environmental control unit that filters out harmful gasses and nanoparticles produced during the printing process. It’s so powerful and efficient that the filter can purify a room on Earth all by itself! “We’re actually in talks with other manufacturers about spinning that off,” says Kohlenberg. “[We’re] doing crazy things that even if you fail to meet your goal, you could revolutionize another industry.”
There was also a lot of “reinventing the wheel” to be done, since a lot of a 3D printer’s parts rely on gravity to work. The company created new mechanisms to replace belts, gears and other normal 3D printer parts, and then tested them on zero-G parabolic flights here on Earth. The printer passed a key test last summer and, if all goes according to plan, should work beautifully on the ISS.
Now, these first few prints won’t really be anything exciting. They’re more for “proof of concept” than permanent additions to the Space Station. However, if the test printer is successful, the next step for the company is to launch a much bigger 3D printer onto the space station. And while that first printer will belong to NASA under its contract, this second one will belong to Made In Space, which will print objects for commercial use.
Once those commercial prints get underway, things will start to get very interesting for the company, says Kohlenberg. Once something is printed in microgravity, it can only exist in microgravity. It’s possible to build entirely new types of structures that wouldn’t survive on Earth! “For the first time,” Kohlenberg says, “companies will be able to build things in space for space.”
It’s an incredible new age for NASA and space exploration. Check out some of our other stories about the progress that NASA is making for space travel, as well as other innovators in the industry. It’s an incredible time to witness the next great American space age!
photo credit: Forbes.com