It’s the size of a micro-wave oven.
And it’s hoped this new device could help reduce the costs of future space missions by allowing astronauts to manufacture spare parts in zero gravity.
The US space agency Nasa believes its new 3-D printer will greatly reduce the need for astronauts to load up with every tool, spare part or supply they might need. At the moment, missions rely on supplies and equipment from Earth, but 3D printing could offer self-sustainable missions.
“Three-D printing, for the first time, will give us an opportunity to build our own systems, our own components in space, to build the repair pieces, to manufacture the small parts that we would otherwise have to wait too long to get on a next space flight for resupply,” said Dave Korsmeyer, Director of Engineering at the Nasa Ames Research Centre.
Also known as additive manufacturing, 3-D printing builds up objects layer by layer, using mostly polymer materials. Engineers now use laser-melted titanium and nickel-chromium powders to make stronger components.
Serving as a flying factory, the printer would have to be solid enough to withstand lift-off vibrations and operate safely in a hostile space environment.
“The real challenge that we faced was designing a printer that would work in zero gravity. And all the printers today have been designed with gravity in mind. So, what it came down to was ruggedising every bit of that printer so that only parts moved when you needed it to move,” said Jason Dunn, chief technologist at Made in Space Inc, the company in charge of building the printer.
Testing continues ahead of the next launch date in 2014. Nasa plans to send the 3-D printer to the International Space Station aboard a cargo resupply mission, where the first creations will be studied for strength and accuracy.