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NASA creates first 3D printed object in space


Washington, Nov 26 (PTI) The world’s first zero-gravity 3D printer on the International Space Station (ISS) has created the first object made using additive manufacturing, paving the way for future long-term space expeditions.

“This first print is the initial step towards providing an on-demand machine shop capability away from Earth,” said Niki Werkheiser, project manager for the ISS 3-D Printer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama.

“The space station is the only laboratory where we can fully test this technology in space,” said Werkheiser.

NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore, Expedition 42 commander aboard the ISS, installed the printer on November 17 and conducted the first calibration test print.

Based on the test print results, the ground control team sent commands to realign the printer and printed a second calibration test on November 20.

These tests verified that the printer was ready for manufacturing operations. On November 24, ground controllers sent the printer the command to make the first printed part: a faceplate of the extruder’s casing.

This demonstrated that the printer can make replacement parts for itself, NASA said.

The 3-D printer uses a process formally known as additive manufacturing to heat a relatively low-temperature plastic filament and extrude it one layer at a time to build the part defined in the design file sent to the machine.

Wilmore then removed the part from the printer and inspected it. Part adhesion on the tray was stronger than anticipated, which could mean layer bonding is different in microgravity, a question the team will investigate as future parts are printed.

Wilmore installed a new print tray, and the ground team sent a command to fine-tune the printer alignment and printed a third calibration coupon.

When Wilmore removes the calibration coupon, the ground team will be able to command the printer to make a second object.

The results from this first print are contributing to a better understanding about the parameters to use when 3-D printing on the space station.

“This is the first time we’ve ever used a 3-D printer in space, and we are learning, even from these initial operations,” Werkheiser said.

“As we print more parts we’ll be able to learn whether some of the effects we are seeing are caused by microgravity or just part of the normal fine-tuning process for printing. When we get the parts back on Earth, we’ll be able to do a more detailed analysis to find out how they compare to parts printed on Earth,” said Werkheiser.

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