Sep 5, 2017 | By Tess

NASA says it will soon be sending its “Refabricator” recycling machine up to space. The device, developed in partnership with Tethers Unlimited Inc. (TUI), can be used to transform plastic objects and parts into 3D printable raw materials aboard the ISS.

One of the crucial technologies that could enable deep space exploration for humans is additive manufacturing. Not only can the technology be used to create parts on-demand and on-site, but it even has the potential to allow astronauts to re-use and recycle plastics that are onboard to create new objects.

NASA's Refabricator recycling system

Part of this potential is owed to the Refabricator, a device that is capable of turning plastic parts and materials into raw plastic materials that are compatible with the International Space Station’s (ISS) 3D printing system.

"When we begin launching humans to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, space will be at a premium," explained Niki Werkheiser, manager of In-Space Manufacturing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. “It simply won’t be feasible to send along replacement parts or tools for everything on the spacecraft, and resupplying from Earth is cost and time prohibitive. The Refabricator will be key in demonstrating a sustainable logistics model to fabricate, recycle, and reuse parts and waste materials.”

The sustainable 3D printing device is expected to launch into space as soon as April 2018, says NASA, and will be used in combination with Made in Space’s AMF 3D printer to manufacture a variety of parts, including tools, medical aids, and more.

The Refabricator has been in development since 2015, when NASA supplied a $750,000 Small Business Innovation Research contract to Seattle-based TUI to produce the sustainable system. NASA will reportedly wrap up the machine’s final flight certification testing later this year at its Marshall Center.

Once in space, the Refabricator will be controlled by operators at Marshall’s Payload Operations Integration Center and TUI. By having control here on Earth, Nasa says that astronauts will have more time to put towards other missions and operations.

“The Refabricator demonstration is a key advance toward our vision of implementing a truly sustainable, in-space manufacturing ecosystem,” commented Rob Hoyt, CEO of TUI. “Astronauts could use this technology to manufacture and recycle food-safe utensils, and turn what is now inconvenient waste into feedstock to help build the next generation of space systems. We believe re-using the waste could reduce the cost and risks for NASA and private space exploration missions.”

Made in Space Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF)

While the Refabricator is currently only compatible with plastic materials, there is the possibility of adapting it for metal 3D printing down the line. The idea is to have the machine running and constantly producing 3D printing materials without any maintenance or notice.

As part of its in-space 3D printing initiative, NASA is also planning to set up a Fabrication Laboratory (FabLab) on the ISS by 2020. An on-demand system, the FabLab could give astronauts the ability to choose what parts they need from a catalogue and then have them printed almost immediately.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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