NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore, Expedition 42 commander, installed the printer on Nov. 17 and printed the first calibration object. Based on those results, the ground control team sent some realignment commands to the printer, and a second calibration test object was printed on Nov 20. The results were 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 Nov. 20. On Nov. 24, ground controllers sent the printer the command to make the first printed part: a faceplate of the extruder’s casing. Wilmore removed the part from the printer and took a look the next morning. The part sticking to the tray so hard was the first surprise. Apparently layer adhesion is a lot stronger in microgravity, so they still have some adjustments to make. They’re printing a third calibration object now.
They are finding out how finicky a 3-D printer can be first-hand, and doing it in space is making it that much more interesting a problem. 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, so we’re guessing it uses the most common filament type already being used in hobbyist 3-d printers, called PLA. This plastic is somewhat softer than styrene, and melts at a much lower temperature. This is a problem for parts that have to hold hot fluids, so there’ll be no making coffee mugs with it, or anything that gets near hot metal parts.
The first object 3-D printed in space, the printhead faceplate, is engraved with names of the organizations that collaborated on this space station technology demonstration: NASA and Made In Space, Inc., the space manufacturing company that worked with NASA to design, build and test the zero-G 3-D printer. Made In Space is located on the campus of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
The printing operations will, for now, be controlled from the ground. The engineers from Made In Space commanded the printer to make the first object while working with controllers at NASA’s Payload Operations Integration Center in Huntsville, Alabama. This is being done to limit crew time required for operations. The objects will be returned to Earth in 2015 for detailed analysis and comparison to control samples made on the ground. The goal is to verify that 3-D printing works the same with or without gravity.
“The operation of the 3-D printer is a transformative moment in space development,” said Aaron Kemmer, chief executive officer of Made In Space. “We’ve built a machine that will provide us with research data needed to develop future 3-D printers for the International Space Station and beyond, revolutionizing space manufacturing. This may change how we approach getting replacement tools and parts to the space station crew, allowing them to be less reliant on supply missions from Earth.”
The eventual goal is to be able to create parts from plastic or metal, reducing the problem of spare parts to one of sending up raw materials for on-station manufacture. 3-D printers that can print using metal instead of plastic do exist, but they naturally require much more power than a plastic printer would.
The first objects built in space will be returned to Earth in 2015 for detailed analysis and comparison to identical ground control samples made on the flight printer after final flight testing earlier this year at, NASA’s Marshall Center prior to launch. The goal of this analysis is to verify that the 3-D printing process works the same in microgravity as it does on Earth.
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