After the SpaceX Dragon returned from its 5th re-supplier mission to the International Space Station (ISS), it brought back with itself several things, including 3D printed wrenches, data to improve cooling systems, protein crystals and seedling samples. The SpaceX dragon had brought back the materials on February 10th.
Now NASA has been busy testing the wrenches which were printed from a 3D printer in the ISS. It seems the wrenches brought from the ISS may force a silent death for the popular English idiom that goes, ‘a wrench in the works’. This is because these 3D printed wrenches are being tested by NASA to assess the effects of microgravity on space based manufacturing.
NASA is testing these wrenches in order to determine if products manufactured in microgravity enjoy any characteristics or qualities different from those manufactured on Earth under conditions of full gravity. Answers to this type of research by NASA will help determine if products could be manufactured in space and be assumed for use during space travel.
Niki Werkheiser, the ISS’s 3D printer program manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville explained that print-on-demand will be a critical technology that will make manned missions to mars possible. Since such missions will be much longer, supply and stocking could be a worry without on-demand printing.
A positive new development in this regard may just be the next big innovation that could fuel manned missions into deeper space. Microgravity 3D printed objects, if found to be as durable and substantive as their counterparts manufactured in full gravity conditions, will make it possible for NASA to plan longer space missions. Such a possibility will also free NASA up from the costly resupply missions that NASA has to undertake to restock ISS from time to time.
The 3D printer that is being used in the ISS has been developed by ‘Made in Space’, a home company. The 3D printer was taken up to the ISS only very recently in September 2014. The 3D printer prints the objects in Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) polymer, the same material with which Lego Bricks are made from. NASA’s forays into space based 3D printing have been closely followed by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) attempt at microgravity printing.
The ESA has already announced that it will be sending its new Portable On-Board 3D Printer (POP3D). ESA’s POP3D, which was funded by Italy’s Space Agency, ‘Agenzia Spaziale Italiana’ (ASI) has been designed by Altran. In contrast to the ABS Polymer used in NASA’s 3D printer, ESA’s POP3D uses heat-based printing and a biodegradable plastic (polylactic acid – PLA). PLA is the same material with which our tea bags, water cups and simple packaging materials are made.