NASA has big plans for 3D printers as they look to move beyond low earth orbit.
3D printers have the ability to create spare parts or tools on the spot in zero gravity or on other planets.
A company that they have turned to, Made in Space, has just recently successfully tested two printers in partial zero gravity. Over the course of multiple NASA flights, the company created a scaled-down wrench, making it the first tool ever printed in low gravity.
If NASA could send 3D printers to the space station or outposts on other planets, they could save crucial time. Currently, if something breaks or needs repairs on the International Space station, a new part has to be launched into space, taking both time and money to launch the part or tool.
Made in Space has been conducting the tests on NASA's Flight Opportunities Program. The program exists to allow technology to be tested in partial zero gravity before actually being launched into space.
Both printers were made with off the shelf parts, one by 3-D systems, and the other a custom made printer for zero gravity.
The way 3D printers work is they build the items layer by layer using a substance called Feedstock. The composition of the feedstock can be changed based on its needs. Materials such as metal, plastic and concrete have all been successfully used before on Earth.
NASA is also hopeful in using the raw materials on other worlds like the Moon or Mars to build structures or tools. Every pound that has to be launched into space costs NASA money. If the raw materials that they need are already at the destination it would cut down on launch costs to colonize other worlds significantly.
"We had a fairly good idea that the technology would work in microgravity, but we wanted to know how well it would work," Made in Space CEO Aaron Kemmer told TechNewsDaily. "The tests focused on building parts that could be analyzed postflight and compared to similar parts built on Earth."
The company went on to add that they have plans to have a working 3D printer in space within the next 3 years.
"Early next year, we will fly the first 3-D printer to space on board a suborbital rocket through NASA's CRuSR program," Kemmer said. "This test will space-qualify many of the components that we will use on the actual 3-D printer we fly to space."