It’s a relatively young technology, but it’s already making the jump to the final frontier—3D printing has arrived on the International Space Station, and it could be a hugely important part of any future manned missions to Mars and beyond.
The most significant development in 3D printing in space happened not too long ago—a ratchet wrench. One small step in the tool world, but the giant leap is in how it was made. For the first time, designs for a 3D-printed object were transmitted to the ISS from Earth and printed on a 3D printer on the station. The wrench was one of 20 items printed on the ISS’ 3D printer, but the other 19 used designs that had been loaded onto the printer before it was launched into space. The ratchet wrench is a proof of concept that it’s possible for a 3D printer in space to receive a design from Earth and successfully manufacture it—essentially, proving that if astronauts halfway to Mars need a tool they don’t have on hand to make repairs, they’re not stranded in literally the worst possible way.
The wrench isn’t out of the proverbial woods yet. It’ll need to be sent back to Earth for exhaustive mechanical testing in order to both make sure the wrench is useable and to see how it might differ from the same design printed on Earth. The distinction is potentially significant&mash;NASA will be ‘exploring how the microgravity environment may benefit how objects are designed and built in space for parts that cannot be made on the ground.’ This could refer to items too big to be launched into space or objects that could be easier to make in a low-gravity environment.
Once testing is done, the next step in space printing will commence. That’s scheduled for early 2015, and will hopefully see 3D printed tools in space become routine—something that is no doubt a prerequisite for any manned mission to Mars.