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3D Printing in Space: ISS Study

Jun 13, 2014 10:56 AM EDT

As new technologies allow the International Space Station (ISS) to become more self-sustainable, the station's occupants will soon be testing whether they can even make their own tools and parts using a specially designed zero-g 3D-printer.

The printer, designed by aptly named Made in Space Inc. of Mountain View, Cali., will be the first manufacturing tool ever to produce something in space.

Like most 3D printers on Earth, the Made in Space printer uses "extrusion additive manufacturing - building objects one layer at a time out of polymers and other fast-cooling materials.

"As NASA ventures further into space, whether redirecting an asteroid or sending humans to Mars, we'll need transformative technology to reduce cargo weight and volume," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a past statement announcing the launch of NASA's collaboration with the California company.

"In the future, perhaps astronauts will be able to print the tools or components they need while in space," he added.

Just this week, Made in Space has passed final NASA testing and certification, finally getting green-lighted to send their historic 3D printer up with the next cargo shipment to the ISS.

"Years of research and development have taught us that there were many problems to solve to make Additive Manufacturing work reliably in microgravity. Now, having found viable solutions, we can welcome a great change - the ability to manufacture on-demand in space is going to be a paradigm shift for the way development, research, and exploration happen in space," Michael Snyder, Lead Engineer and Director of R&D for Made In Space, said in a statement.

The printer will be installed in the Microgravity Science Glove box on the orbital outpost, and will initally print 21 demonstration parts, including parts and tools relevant to everyday ISS work. These tools will not be put into use, instead being sent back to Earth for proper analysis.

If found without flaws, future 3D Printing products may actually find active application on the ISS.

NASA has already tested the printer once in near-zero gravity conditions with success.

The Made in Space printer is currently slated to be sent up to the ISS in SpaceX's CRS-4 in August 2014.

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