Mar 18, 2016 | By Benedict

Orbital ATK, a NASA commercial provider, will launch its fifth mission to the International Space Station on March 22, bringing with it a second generation portable onboard 3D printer—the ‘Additive Manufacturing Facility’—amongst 7,500 lbs of scientific apparatus.

It gives us endless pleasure to know that there are 3D printers up in space. Since November 2014, the International Space Station has been home to a fully operational 3D printer, with which astronauts have been able to 3D print small replacement parts, tools, and such like using files emailed to them from Earth. Now, as Orbital prepares to send its fifth mission to the ISS, that floating additive manufacturing workspace is about to get an upgrade.

When Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft takes flight at 23:05 EDT on Tuesday, it will be packing 7,500 lbs of essential equipment, including vehicle hardware, crew supplies, instruments and experiments, and—most excitingly—an all new 3D printing facility. The second generation Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF), developed by space 3D printing authority Made in Space, will be “capable of producing parts out of a wide variety of thermopolymers including engineered plastics”, and will replace the history-making machine delivered to the space station in 2014.

Despite its ostensible portability, the new AMF 3D printer measures roughly twice the size of its predecessor. Like the first generation 3D printer, it will enable crew members to make on-demand repairs and maintenance with newly printed components and tools. The new 3D printer, which will be installed in an EXPRESS Rack mid-deck locker, is able to extrude molten plastic in zero-gravity situations, and has been designed in a modular fashion so that it can be easily upgraded and serviced when necessary.

According to its developers, the new 3D printer will be relied upon for much more serious tasks than its predecessor. “The printer that’s already up there is basically a prototype—it was just meant to see if the process will work,” says Brad Kohlenberg of Made In Space. “The second printer will be able to print with multiple materials, has about eight times the print volume, and can print faster with higher resolution.”

The second generation AMF 3D printer could be the last of its kind to reach the ISS, having been designed to last the entire lifetime of the space station. Made in Space does, however, anticipate making small hardware and software updates to the facility.

Once the Orbital Cygnus spacecraft delivers the 3D printer and its other important cargo to the ISS, it will proceed to the next, somewhat unusual part of its mission. As part of NASA's Saffire-1 experiment, a 3 feet x 1 foot length of material aboard the Cygnus will be set on fire, to observe how fires spread in space—a phenomenon largely unfamiliar to NASA and other aerospace organizations across the world.

"Understanding fire in space has been the focus of many experiments over the years," said Gary Ruff, an aerospace engineer at NASA's Glenn Research Center. “[Although] small, centimeter-sized fires have been lit in space before, to really understand fire, you've got to look at a more realistic size.”

The fire will be monitored with temperature, oxygen, and carbon dioxide sensors. This equipment will record data about the spreading fire whilst cameras film the proceedings. The fire will burn for around 20 minutes, before the remnants of the Cygnus are released into the Earth’s atmosphere to disintegrate.

Should Cygnus be unable to launch at the designated hour come Tuesday, it will instead depart at 22:40 on Wednesday, March 23. NASA TV will document the launch regardless of its timing.



Posted in 3D Printer



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