3-D printing is about to enter the next frontier, as NASA has announced plans to launch the versatile manufacturing tools into space next year.
The initiative aims to reduce the need for astronauts to stock up on supplies and instead only produce tools as they need them. Officials said they hope this will reduce waste, cut costs and free up precious shelf room on space missions.
The technology of 3-D printing has been in around since the 1980′s but recent advances have made it more practical and increasingly popular. It involves layering of various materials to form an object, making 3-D printing a faster, cheaper and more flexible alternative to conventional manufacturing, which involves cutting material away from a larger blank.
“One of the big challenges in space is that building things on the ground and launching them can cost a lot of money and it’s logistically difficult,” said Grant Lowery, marketing and communication manager of Made In Space, the company contracted by NASA to build the printers. “If you can get the tool to make things in space, you will be able to manufacture on site and save these resources.”
The 3-D printer that will soar through space is unlike its earthbound counterparts. Made In Space had to develop a machine that met three specific qualifications: the abilities to survive the rigors of launch, to be unaffected by the lack of gravity and to withstand thermal stresses.
MIS developed the technology through a zero-gravity simulator, affectionately known as the “Vomit Comet,” to test prototypes until they developed one that matched specifications. The design was approved by NASA and the unit is currently being made for the International Space Station.
NASA did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment.
The first test flight on SpaceX Flight 5 is scheduled for the summer or fall of 2014. From there, space manufacturing has potential to open up new possibilities for space technologies, Lowery said.
“From there, we may be able to build larger structures — space-based solar power, moon bases and aircraft,” Lowery said. “The ability to build there is the key. We’re enabling humanity’s future in space.”