3D printed part in space: mission successful!
The first European part made in space by the additive manufacturing process, also known as 3D printing, took place yesterday, February 2, 2016, on the International Space Station. Brilliantly conducted by American astronaut Scott Kelly, this “European First” used a purpose-designed Portable Onboard 3D Printer, built by prime contractor Altran Italia in partnership with Thales Alenia Space and the Italian Institute of Technology, under the direction of the Italian space agency, ASI.
Producing an object from scratch in space is now possible!
Scott Kelly operated the 3D printer in the International Space Station’s crew area and printed the part in less than one hour, under the “zero g” conditions of space. He turned out a small 3D object made of polylactic acid (PLA), a plastic that is melted extruded in layers, made from renewable resources, that is also biocompatible and biodegradable. This item will shortly be sent back down to Earth to compare then with identical objects produced on terra firma.
Additive manufacturing in space: multiple benefits in view
A spaceborne 3D printer could radically change space exploration. Today, any furnishings, parts or tools have to be rocketed into space in final form, and that's expensive and complicated. The advent of a 3D printer in space could be the first step towards the on-site production of tools and spare parts for long-duration exploration or scientific missions. Our next challenge will be the production directly in orbit of entire space structures, greatly reducing the volume of supplies to be boosted into space and the number of resupply missions needed.