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A part, printed in a vacuum

3D printing in space is about to take a considerable leap forward. Made In Space, an organization that made headlines by putting the first 3D printer in space, has announced that they’ve made a breakthrough in printing in a vacuum.

While their previous machine was confined to a small cube within the ISS — which is climate controlled and pressurized — the new system would be capable of printing outside the space station. Theoretically this would allow for 3D printing structures that would not be limited to the volume of the ISS.

Printing in microgravity was a first step, but printing in the vacuum of space presents some major issues that the typical 3D printer manufacturer doesn’t have to worry about.

First, there’s the material. They can’t just plop PLA or ABS into the machine like you would on a typical 3D printer. They are using polyetherimide polycarbonate (PEI-PC), similar to Ultem™ by Sabic. This polymer is especially well suited for exposure to the space environment.

Then, there’s the extreme temperatures that the machine has to endure:

While we can’t tell you exactly how we overcame the challenges, one big issue is thermal control. In a vacuum there is no air to affect heat radiation so that was one big challenge we solved. The specialized extruder was custom built by us and unfortunately that’s about all we’re comfortable saying at this point.

The group has been testing their custom hardware in vacuum chambers and suspects they are roughly 18 months from incorporating the new hardware into their tests aboard the ISS. You can find more information on their site.

These preliminary tests, combined with our experience with microgravity additive manufacturing, show that the direct manufacturing of structures in space is possible using Made In Space developed technologies. Soon, structures will be produced in space that are much larger than what could currently fit into a launch fairing, designed for microgravity rather than launch survivability. Complete structural optimization is now possible in space.