back to article NASA clears zero-G 3D printer for mission to SPAAAAACE

A special 3D printer designed to work in zero-gravity conditions has received flight certification from NASA and will shortly be sent up to the International Space Station for astronauts to try out. The space stations forthcoming 3D printer Astronauts will soon be able to build their own plastic gewgaws The snappily named …

  1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

    This is good work, and possibly a very important step for our long-term future in space.

    But, it would have ruined the film Apollo 13...

    1. BristolBachelor Gold badge
      Coat

      No, they'd just have to change the storyline a little. The printer would only work from the power supply socket in the command module. The power supply in the command module would then fail, and they'd need to print a new part to fix it... Something would have to be built using just a bog roll, a staple stolen from a printout, the foil packet of a space curry meal..... in order to power the printer from the socket in the Service Module, but the computer to control it would still be in the CM - so they would have to try to hand cross-compile the code for the incompatible computer in the SM.....

      1. Oninoshiko

        Maybe less entertaining, but I'm sure it would have made James Lovell's life easier.

        Actually, though, it wouldn't have. One of the highly limited resources on Apollo 13 was power. They'd have had to rip the cover off the manual anyway, because they couldn't afford the power for this.

    2. cray74

      This plastic 3D printer wouldn't have affected Apollo 13. The basic problem on Apollo 13 was that in a matter of minutes it lost most of the oxygen it needed for its fuel cells thanks to a ruptured tank, and in turn lost most of the power it needed to stay alive.

      **Assuming you had good models of the ruptured tanks and plumbing;

      **Assuming you had a 3D printer(s) that could work with the diverse range of materials (diverse metals, glass, foams, plastics) instead of just soft plastics that liquid oxygen likes to ignite;

      **Assuming the astronauts had the tools to remove all the mangled hardware;

      **Assuming the astronauts were able to install the replacement parts in their bulky suits and the tight confines of the service module; and

      **Assuming you could get all the parts printed in just a few hours instead of a few weeks...

      Then you still don't have enough oxygen for the fuel cells. 3D printers can't create materials from nothing.

      A 3D printer might've helped a bit during the juryrigging inside the capsule and LEM, like adapting the CO2 filters from the command module to the air system of the LEM, but there was a simpler method: duct tape.

      So, Apollo 13 wouldn't have been helped much and the movie would've stayed fairly dramatic.

      1. Oninoshiko

        re: cray74

        Fairly sure they where talking about the CO2 scrubbers, not that it would have mattered, the thing didn't have power to run the primary nav-computer, let alone a 3D printer.

  2. DocJames
    Pint

    Who had a high school named after them that could have been saved by a spare part?

    (This is vital knowledge for the next pub quiz; it's a likely question)

    1. Trigonoceps occipitalis

      Is there a Tony Blair High School?

      (Edit: Sorry, I thought you wrote "was a spare part")

  3. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    I trust they cannot be used to make copies of themselves

    Or I, for one, will have to welcome our new Von Neumann overlords...

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    ISS this is Vulture 13, we have a problem.

    OK get your mission control to send us the nose cone plans and we'll get you fixed for home!

    Cue patriotic music, special relationship in space, sun going over horizon etc..

    Just make sure someone reminds them Metric now and then OK, we don't need Sandra Bullock in on this one.

  5. psychonaut

    no shit sherlock

    "however, there's always the potential for unknown scenarios that you couldn't possibly think of ahead of time"

  6. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    3D printing of plastic is not going to save anyone

    The idea of printing replacement parts is fine, but it will have to use materials that have much better durability than plastic if we are to be able to use it in a colonization scenario.

    A full-fledged colony will have to have mining utensils, maybe even mining machines, smelters, smithies and metalworkers. It might even be a good idea to stay low-tech as much as possible - if a colony bases its management on tablets and spreadsheets then everything will grind to halt when the equipment fails.

    But for a proof-of-concept phase, this is definitely a good idea.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: 3D printing of plastic is not going to save anyone

      A plastic part that keeps you alive for a couple of days is worth 100 metal parts, rated for the full mission duration, that you don't have.

      Completely different tolerances, but we prototyped a float-valve on a 3-D printer. It worked for a whole day before falling apart. Which was perfect as a proof of concept, before going on to the more expensive prototyping stages.

      1. No, I will not fix your computer

        Re: 3D printing of plastic is not going to save anyone

        >>but we prototyped a float-valve on a 3-D printer. It worked for a whole day before falling apart.

        ABS or PLA?

        We are starting to print with carbon fibre epoxy now, amazing strength and very resilient, in fact zero G could mean printing with materials that gravity otherwise buggers up - zero G isn't a problem, it's an opportunity :D

  7. Mr C

    They should make one BIG printer..

    to print alot of baby 3D printers :P

    Seriously, this is good stuff, and while some are moaning about its usefulness people should realize that its only a first step, the first of many i'm sure.

    Once this thing works as expected NASA will be clever enough to make it so it can print using several materials, or even find a way to recycle what it builds so once the object becomes garbage it could be re-used in some way.

    Move along!

  8. Simon B
    WTF?

    microwave oven–sized??

    'is a microwave oven–sized 3D printing unit .'

    From the pic, the microwave ovens nasa use must be bloody massive!!

    1. No, I will not fix your computer

      Re: microwave oven–sized??

      It's the microwave oven sized thing in the front, not the massive clean box in the background.

  9. Rabbit80

    Why exactly would a regular 3d printer not work? (Other than the printing tray not being secured by anything other than gravity which could be fixed with a couple of clips)

    1. Lord Raa

      I'd imagine that

      It's to do with extruding in a microgravity environment.

      I'm not sure how molten plastic flows in low gravity, it could be rather difficult to get the layers in the right place.

      1. DropBear Silver badge
        Trollface

        Re: I'd imagine that

        Easy to test - take a normal one right here on earth and have it print upside down. Or on its side. I bet it could, as long as the x/y/z-axis would keep working. I'm pretty sure plastic gets where it needs to be by extrusion pressure, not gravity....

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      One problem with regualr 3D printers

      is they are not rated for man space missions.

      Your 3D printer starts smoking at home you can pull the plug and open the window.

      In space you can still pull the plug, but opening the window may be a challenge.

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