Nasa is aiming to send a 3D printer into space next year to help astronauts create parts and tools in zero gravity, according to news agency Associated Press.
It is the first time that anyone has attempted to send a 3D printing device into space and the American space agency claims it could help to slash the price of future space missions, while reducing the amount of supplies that astronauts need to take with them.
Nasa selected Made in Space's 3D printer for a space test scheduled to go ahead in 2014, after considering 3D printer designs from more than a dozen companies.
According to AP, the Silicon Valley start-up's microwave-sized printer is designed to withstand launch vibrations and the stresses of working in orbit, including microgravity, differing air pressures, limited power and variable temperatures.
Nasa and Made In Space will also have to consider ventilation as scientists previously warned earlier this year that ultrafine particles created as a direct result of 3D printing processes could have possible health consequences if there is insufficient ventilation.
"Imagine an astronaut needing to make a life-or-death repair on the International Space Station," said Aaron Kemmer, the company's chief executive. "Rather than hoping that the necessary parts and tools are on the station already, what if the parts could be 3D printed when they needed them?"
Made In Space's printer will be shuttled up to the space station aboard a spaceflight cargo resupply mission. Initial print tests will involve creating a range of small shapes that will be assessed on their strength and accuracy. Made in Space is also said to be discussing with Nasa what the first real piece of space equipment it will print will be.
The process of 3D printing involves building up objects layer by layer using polymer materials in a method that is also referred to as additive manufacturing.
Laser-melted metal powders are now being used to build significantly stronger components. Indeed, Nasa successfully tested a metal 3D printed rocket component able to withstand extreme temperatures in August as part of its drive to reduce the costs of space exploration.
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