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
December 5, 2014 -- Updated 1710 GMT (0110 HKT)
An uncrewed test flight will send Orion 3,600 miles above Earth, farther into space than any craft designed for astronauts has gone since the last Apollo moon mission more than 40 years ago.
December 1, 2014 -- Updated 1402 GMT (2202 HKT)
The University of Colorado Boulder has announced a discovery 7,200 miles above Earth of a protective shield similar to the force fields you might see in "Star Trek."
November 28, 2014 -- Updated 0058 GMT (0858 HKT)
The International Space Station's 3-D printer will create objects that can be used by those living in the station.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 1422 GMT (2222 HKT)
Shrimp crawling around rock chimneys spewing hot water deep in the Caribbean Sea may hold clues to the kinds of life that can thrive in extreme environments on other planets, NASA says.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 2119 GMT (0519 HKT)
It's hard to top the tricky, first-ever landing on a comet but we'll try. Here are 11 other space missions to know about.
November 7, 2014 -- Updated 2321 GMT (0721 HKT)
Add another entry to the growing list of crazy footage captured by GoPro cameras.
November 1, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
It is in our DNA to explore the unknown. But pushing boundaries and exploring space is far from easy.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1542 GMT (2342 HKT)
If there's one thing we've learned about the CNN iReport community, it's that you all love to capture celestial events.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 0025 GMT (0825 HKT)
Want to ride an elevator into space? A breakthrough in nanotechnology could mean we will be riding into space on a cable made of diamonds.
October 7, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Astronauts lie motionless in a row of compartments with medical monitoring cables connected to their bodies, as their space ship cuts through the silent blackness.
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.
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.
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 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.
February 25, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
From a sheep ranch in Western Australia comes the oldest slice of Earth we know.