There is something about 3D printers that sounds like science fiction. You pick a pattern, push a button, and voila! An object comes out of the printer, a device that you can pick up in your hands and use around the house.
A recent news story adds to that science fiction feel. Europe is set to deliver its first zero-gravity 3D printer to space by the end of June. This will make it the second 3D printer in space. Remember last fall, NASA sent a 3D printer to the International Space Station. The printer was installed in late November and engineers printed several pre-designed test objects, starting with a replacement part for the printer. As reported in this story from the BBC, Mike Chen, the founder of the company which built the 3D printer, said:
“We had overheard ISS Commander Barry Wilmore mention over the radio that he needed [a ratcheting socket wrench], so we designed one in CAD and sent it up to him faster than a rocket ever could have.”
In other words, NASA emailed a wrench to space. They designed the file on the grund and transmitted it by radio up to the space station. The astronauts received the file and they made the 3D printer go to work. And just like that, they had a wrench.
NASA is hoping this technology will help astronauts to be more self-reliant on future missions. Made in Space, the company behind the printer, has even larger ambitions. They are experimenting with the types of raw materials that their printer can use, including materials very similar to lunar soil. In theory, that would make it possible to send a misson to the moon with a 3D printer, where they could scoop up the lunar soil then print the components to build a mon base. No need to hal supplies from Earth.
The day when mankind can print a base on the moon is obviously far in the future but the technology that allowed NASA to email a wrench to space is the same technology that we use around here every day, just on a smaller scale.