Taking the first step in what NASA hopes will become a key part of future long-term space journeys, engineers have created the first 3D printed object in space.
Using a 3D printer that was installed on the International Space Station on Nov. 17, NASA built a faceplate for the printer itself.
Creating the faceplate, which was made of plastic, gives engineers hope that 3D printers can one day be used to build everything from spare parts to tools and even food onboard the space station, as well as on deep space flights to asteroids and Mars.
"This first print is the initial step toward providing an on-demand machine shop capability away from Earth," Niki Werkheiser, project manager for the International Space Station 3-D Printer project, said in a statement. "The space station is the only laboratory where we can fully test this technology in space."
The printer was brought to the station in September on board a SpaceX Dragon cargo craft.
After doing an initial calibration early last week, on Monday engineers on the ground sent commands to the printer to make its first object. On Tuesday, the part was complete and was removed from the machine for inspection.
NASA reported that there might be differences in bonding between different layers in microgravity since it found that part adhesion was stronger in this first printed object than was anticipated. Engineers will research the issue with subsequent prints.
Once the first printing was completed, the space agency's ground team sent commands to fine-tune the printer's alignment. As of Tuesday, printing a second object had not yet been undertaken.
"This is the first time we've ever used a 3D 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."
Most of the work testing out the 3D printer is being done from the ground to limit the amount of time astronauts working on the space station need to spend on it, according to NASA. Ground engineers monitor the manufacturing process via downloaded images and videos.
In late spring 2013, NASA chief administrator Charles Bolden talked about the importance of being able to use additive manufacturing, another term for 3D printing, in space. Bolden noted that the technology is critical to enabling astronauts to travel far from Earth and its support systems.
"As NASA ventures further into space, [whether] redirecting an asteroid or sending humans to Mars, we'll need transformative technology to reduce cargo weight and volume," Bolden said last year. "In the future, perhaps astronauts will be able to print the tools and components they need in space."
The technology works by laying down successive layers to create an object, in this case plastic, but metals also can be used.
Made in Space, a company based in the Ames Research Park in Moffett Field, Calif., worked with engineers at NASA to design, build and test the 3-D printer.