Sure, 3-D printers can print pretty much any three-dimensional object you can think of - but can they print in zero gravity?
That’s what NASA wants to find out next year when it tests a 3-D printer on the International Space Station. So far, the printer, which NASA created with Made In Space, a California-based company, has successfully printed small computer parts in parabolic flights that simulate zero gravity. But the next step is to actually test a 3-D printer in space.
“We want to show that not only can we print, but when we print these tools they have same comparable quality as printing on Earth,” said Niki Werkheiser, project lead for 3-D printing in zero-G ISS technology demonstration at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
The printer works like existing 3-D printers: It heats and melts plastic and then pours it, layer by layer, until the object is formed. Currently, if an astronaut loses or breaks an item on the International Space Station, he or she must wait until a scheduled launch for a replacement. Having the ability to print objects on the space station will limit costs and save time, according to Werkheiser.
“This is the first time that we’re actually creating [an object] in space that we did not certify on the ground first,” said Werkheiser. “It will tremendously change the way we operate and the options we have.”
Watch the video above to see how the printer will work.