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NASA 3D Printer in the Works for Astronauts in Space

Image: NASA 3D Printer in the Works for Astronauts in Space Tools and parts made by a 3D printer on display at Made in Space in Mountain View, California.

By Michael Mullins   |   Monday, 30 Sep 2013 10:51 AM

NASA will be launching a 3D printer to the International Space Station in June.

The device, the size of a large toaster oven, will allow astronauts to print plastic molds of devices and tools they need, thereby reducing the number of items they bring with them on missions.

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The 3D printer will be part of the fifth SpaceX supply mission, CNN reported.

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

In addition to developing replacement parts and rocket pieces that are able to withstand extreme temperatures, NASA engineers are in the process of 3D printing small satellites that can be launched from the International Space Section to transmit data back to earth.

"If you want to be adaptable, you have to be able to design and manufacture on the fly, and that's where 3D printing in space comes in," said Dave Korsmeyer, director of engineering at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field told the AP.

NASA is reportedly in the process of selecting a 3D printer from more than a dozen machines, which range from $300 desktop models to advanced versions that cost upwards of $500,000.

One of the obstacles facing NASA engineers is that none of these devices have been used in space, so it is not clear how they will operate under conditions like differing air pressures, microgravity, and variable temperatures.

To better prepare the devices for orbital usage, NASA has outsourced the work to the Silicon Valley startup Made In Space. Made In Space is in the process of testing and altering the many 3D printing devices for NASA.

"Everything that you launch is going to have to withstand up to 9Gs in the rocket and crazy vibrations," Made In Space co-founder and chief strategy officer, Mike Chen, said at World Maker Faire in Queens earlier this month, the Christian Science Monitor reported.

"Things in space are vastly over-engineered, really, for the first 8 minutes of its existence," Chen added. "Think about what you can do now that you have 3D printing capabilities on orbit. For the first time, we'll be able to design things for space that don't ever have to exist in a gravity environment."

As for what the first device the 3D printer will be capable of producing in space, Made In Space CEO Aaron Kemmer told the AP, "It's not something we're discussing publicly right now."

Jason Dunn, Made In Space's chief technology officer then added with a laugh, "We're going to build a Death Star," referring to the giant space station in the "Star Wars" movies that was capable of blowing up planets. "Then it's all going to be over."

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