California Company Pioneers 3-D Printing in Space
January 9, 2015
Imagine a future in which humanity builds outposts in space - on the surface of the moon,
floating in the clouds above Venus, or on the dusty plains of Mars - capable of manufacturing parts
built to digital order, rather than waiting months or years for replacement supplies from Earth.
This kind of self-sufficiency is an essential goal for the success of such ventures. For one
California startup company, it's a goal that's closer than most people think.
Made In Space, a small company (it has only 22 employees) founded just four years ago with the
assistance of Silicon Valley high-tech incubator` Singularity University, is pioneering the
development of 3-D printers capable of operating in microgravity environments. The machine designed
by Made In Space uses an extrusion-based method that layers hot liquefied ABS plastic to build
objects based off digital 3-D models. Future machines would use other materials, ideally - in the
case of extraterrestrial outposts - materials mined locally.
"The goal of Made In Space is to develop the necessary technologies to allow humanity to move beyond
earth," said Made In Space Chief Technology Officer and Co-founder Jason Dunn. "The ability to
construct materials, tools and structures in space is essential to the exploration and development
of our solar system."
Made In Space's first 'field device' arrived on the International Space Station (ISS) in September
2014, and has since been successfully used to produce a variety of objects, including at least one
that can't be easily manufactured in an environment with normal gravity. Most recently, the printer
made headlines for producing a tool that wasn't even designed when the machine was launched. The
humble ratchet wrench, produced in response to a request made by ISS astronauts, represents a
milestone in on-demand manufacturing.
"NASA wanted to validate the process for printing on demand, which will be critical on longer
journeys to Mars," explained Niki Werkheiser, the space station 3-D printer program manager at
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "In less than a week, the ratchet was
designed, approved by safety and other NASA reviewers, and the file was sent to space where the
printer made the wrench in four hours. If you can transmit a file to the station as quickly as you
can send an email, it opens up endless possibilities."
In the short term, in-space manufacturing technology could bring down the cost of spaceflight
significantly, allowing astronauts to bring a printer and raw material into orbit instead of a large
cache of spare parts. On the ISS, for instance, as much as 30% of its parts could potentially be
replaced with 3-D printed constructs. In the long term, in-space manufacturing could spell the
difference between success and failure for NASA's more ambitious ventures to the moon and beyond.
Both NASA and Made In Space have expressed satisfaction with the performance of the printer,
although NASA is proceeding cautiously until it is able to return the 3-D printed objects to the
ground and run them through structural and mechanical testing.
"When we started Made In Space in 2010, we laid out a large, audacious vision for changing space
exploration by bringing manufacturing to space," said Dunn. "We're nearing the culmination of the
first stage of our larger vision."