3D printing – in space!

As news of a rocket engine with 3D-printed components is announced, there are already other 3D space ventures well in production and en-route for the ISS.

A 3D printer is bound for the space station in 2014 after passing a series of key microgravity flight tests.

Three prototype versions of space manufacturing startup Made in Space’s 3D printer showed their stuff during four airplane flights that achieved brief periods of microgravity via parabolic maneuvers.

"We demonstrated that our 3D printers can print in microgravity," Made in Space strategic officer Mike Chen said in a statement.

"Next year, we will demonstrate that they can print on the International Space Station."

3D printers use a technique called extrusion additive manufacturing to build objects layer by layer out of polymers, metals, composites and other materials. Made in Space’s machine is slated to launch toward the orbiting lab in August 2014, in a collaboration with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center called the 3D Printing in Zero G Experiment.

The main goal of the project is to help jump-start an off-planet manufacturing capability, which proponents say could aid humanity’s push out into the solar system by making living in space easier and cheaper.

"The 3D printer we’re developing for the ISS is all about enabling astronauts today to be less dependent on Earth," Noah Paul-Gin, Made in Space’s microgravity experiment lead, said in a statement.

"The version that will arrive on the ISS next year has the capability of building an estimated 30 percent of the spare parts on the station, as well as various objects such as specialty tools and experiment upgrades."

NASA seems convinced with 3D printing’s potential. For example, the space agency also recently funded the development of a prototype 3D printer designed to make space food products out of cheap raw materials that have a long shelf life. They gave $125,000 to a Texas based company that they hope one day can provide the ability to feed astronauts on longer missions, such as a a manned mission to Mars.

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