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NASA is Taking 3D Printing Very Seriously

Aug 08, 2014 10:59 PM EDT

NASA has announced that by the end of next month, the agency will have built its first space imaging telescope made almost entirely out of 3D printed components. This will serve as a proof of concern, paving the way for future 3D printing endeavors.

According to NASA aerospace engineer Jason Budinoff, this first 3D-printed telescope is only one of a series of projects that he is building in a multi-aim Internal Research and Development (IRAD) program. He is also crafting a fully functional 50 millimeter camera composed of 3D-printed parts that could one day be the kind of camera equipped on the tiny CubeSat satellites that recently were sent to the International Space Station (ISS).

"As far as I know, we are the first to attempt to build an entire instrument with 3D printing," Budinoff said in a recent statement.

Budinoff calls his current project a "pathfinder," paving the way for future 3D printing projects and showcasing just how simple and inexpensive designer 3D printing can be.

"When we build telescopes for science instruments, it usually involves hundreds of pieces. These components are complex and very expensive to build," he said. "But with 3D printing, we can reduce the overall number of parts and make them with nearly arbitrary geometries. We're not limited by traditional mill- and lathe-fabrication operations."

"I basically want to show that additive-machined instruments can fly," he added. "When future program managers ask, 'Can we use this technology?' we can say, 'Yes, we already have qualified it.'"

And Budinoff is not alone. NASA's Sandy Elam Green recently put a series of 3D printed parts into practice while acoustic engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) tested the potentially damaging volume of the Space Launch System project still in development.

The company Made in Space is also due to send up the world's (and beyond) first zero-gravity 3D printer for experimental tool crafting on the ISS later this month.

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