"Tea. Earl Grey. Hot." If you’ve ever watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, you’ll be familiar with the scenario of Captain Picard ordering his favourite hot beverage. The matter replicator has long been a dream of science fiction but, like so many science fiction ideas, it’s on its way to becoming reality.
Ok, so we might be a long way off making cups of tea out of thin air but NASA’s plan to install a 3D printer on the International Space Station will make life in outer space that bit easier. We first covered this topic in January 2012 in our article, The Future of 3D Printing. Following extensive tests, including printing in zero gravity, the 3D printer is due to be sent to the ISS in June 2014.
On the space station, as anywhere else, parts sometimes wear out, break or even get lost. Re-supplying the ISS is a costly and time consuming with astronauts having to wait weeks or even months for replacement parts to be sent from Earth.
With a 3D printer on the station, replacement parts can be manufactured in a matter of hours. If necessary, several prototypes can be produced and tested before the finished product is built; a process which would be laborious and ruinously expensive using any other method.
The printer will be programmed with pre-loaded designs for commonly used items, with new designs uploaded as and when needed. At just a foot square and capable of producing only plastic objects, the 3D printer will have its limitations. However, if it proves successful, NASA will undoubtedly develop machines capable of producing much larger and more complex objects.
One such device could be a laser sintering machine, which can effectively 3D print metallic objects. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that, in the near future, entire spacecraft or space stations could be 3D printed and assembled in orbit.
To see the 3D printer being put through its paces in zero gravity, check out the video below:
by Anthony Morgan