NASA sending a 3-D printer into space
- NASA plans to launch a 3-D printer to the International Space Station
- The tool will let astronauts replace lost or broken items
- Launching spares takes up space and adds weight to launches
- Printer will be ready in June for a SpaceX mission to the station
(CNN) -- When traveling through space, there are certain items you know you're going to need. A spacesuit? Most likely. A towel? Some say it's the most massively useful item you can have.
For all the rest, NASA has a new plan: 3-D printers. In space.
The agency plans to send a 3-D printer to the International Space Station in June, when the fifth SpaceX supply mission is scheduled.
In a video published Monday, the agency explains that a functional 3-D printer would help astronauts keep a steady supply of all the little parts needed to keep the 15-year-old station in working order without having to deliver or find storage space for replacements.
"3-D printing provides us the ability to do our own 'Star Trek' replication right there on the spot," NASA astronaut Timothy "T.J." Creamer says in the video. The printer would "help us replace things we've lost, replace things we've broken or maybe make things that we've thought of that would be useful."
NASA will be able to load software for items it knows the astronauts will need onto the printer beforehand but also will be able to upload new ones from Earth if needed.
A model of the proposed 3-D printer, from private company Made In Space, recently passed a battery of tests at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Chief among the questions addressed: whether the printer can withstand the pressure of a launch and how it would perform in "micro-gravity" aboard the space station.
"The 3D printing experiment with NASA is a step towards the future," Made In Space CEO Aaron Kemmer said in a news release when the partnership was announced. "The ability to 3D-print parts and tools on demand greatly increases the reliability and safety of space missions while also dropping the cost by orders of magnitude."
Niki Werkheiser, NASA's point person on the project, said 3-D printing will significantly improve efficiency and convenience for astronauts.
"As you might imagine on Space Station, whatever you have available in orbit is what they have to use," she said. "Just like on the ground, you have parts that break or get lost. When that happens, you do have to wait for replacement parts, or we have to use multiple spares that have to be launched -- which does require extra mass."
So what types of things could easily be lost and reproduced on the printer? In the video, Creamer mentions tools used on the space station and small pieces of storage racks used to anchor them down. But a 3-D printer could also be used to replicate more ambitious items in space -- someday, maybe even a pizza.
Today's five most popular stories
Part of complete coverage on
September 20, 2014 -- Updated 1929 GMT (0329 HKT)
Scientists are closer to seeing a vast, invisible universe as a spectrometer in Earth orbit picks up possible clues of dark matter.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
The Soviets sent stray dogs up to conquer space. This is what happened next
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 0920 GMT (1720 HKT)
Scientists believe that a hot gas bubble was formed by multiple supernovas.
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Life aboard the International Space Station.
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 0153 GMT (0953 HKT)
NASA's New Horizons mission hurtles toward Pluto in historic 3 billion mile expedition.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 2044 GMT (0444 HKT)
After a 10-year chase the Rosetta spacecraft is now orbiting a comet
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
"Here comes the sun" indeed, and it was just barely all right.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Seems NASA's fascination with the moon is in the past. It's focused on something far more menacing: incoming asteroids
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 0356 GMT (1156 HKT)
Scientists looking for signs of life in the universe -- as well as another planet like our own -- are a lot closer to their goal than people realize.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
The U.S. Army brainchild "Project Horizon" was born. Its proposal to leap beyond the Soviets opened with the line: "There is a requirement for a manned military outpost on the moon."
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1943 GMT (0343 HKT)
From Earth, the sun appears as a constant circle of light, but when viewed in space a brilliant display of motion is revealed.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
The full moons of this summer -- July 12, August 10 and September 9 -- are supermoons, as NASA calls them.
June 29, 2014 -- Updated 1551 GMT (2351 HKT)
If you think you saw a flying saucer over Hawaii, you might not be crazy -- except what you saw didn't come from outer space, though that may be its ultimate destination.
June 27, 2014 -- Updated 0147 GMT (0947 HKT)
The U.S. space shuttle program retired in 2011, leaving American astronauts to hitchhike into orbit. But after three long years, NASA's successor is almost ready to make an entrance.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
When I first poked my head inside Virgin Galactic's newest spaceship, I felt a little like I was getting a front-row seat to space history.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
The sun is putting on a fireworks show again.
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 2302 GMT (0702 HKT)
A year is a very long time on Mars -- 687 days. NASA's Curiosity rover can attest that it's enough time for some unexpected life changes.
May 2, 2014 -- Updated 1800 GMT (0200 HKT)
At least one corner of the solar system may be serving up an ice-and-water sandwich, with the possibility of life on the rocks.
April 8, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
You can't see it happening on Earth, but space itself is stretching. Ever since the Big Bang happened 13.8 billion years ago, the universe has been getting bigger.
February 25, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
From a sheep ranch in Western Australia comes the oldest slice of Earth we know.