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There is some strange cargo aboard the SpaceX rocket scheduled to launch early Saturday morning. Tiny satellites built to test equipment that could someday mine asteroids, 20 mice and edible plants, among 252 other science experiments, will all make their way to the International Space Station.
And for the first time ever, there is also a 3D printer on board. Built by Mountain View startup Made in Space, the machine could someday replace the spare parts the ISS must keep on board. If the space station runs out of a certain part or if one breaks, Made in Space’s team can design a replacement and then just hit print, prompting the printer to spit out exactly what the astronauts on board need.
“There has always been one way of getting things into space, and that’s been rockets,” Made in Space CTO Jason Dunn said in an interview. “If everything works, we’ve validated a new way to get hardware into space.”
This first version of the printer is actually a test: Made in Space has never actually used it in a true low-gravity environment. Instead, it tested the printer on a plane performing parabolic arcs, which provide brief periods of weightlessness. If a major emergency happened on the space station and 3D printing an object was the best possible solution, it’s possible the printer would be used, but it’s likely that it will only be used for printing test items.
Made in Space will have to wait a month or two once the printer reaches the space station, as other science experiments have priority. The mice, for example, likely won’t have long to live. But once the startup’s turn comes, it will print a first batch of 22 test parts. A second batch will follow, though exactly what and how many items will be printed hasn’t yet been decided.
“We have really high expectations for it printing,” Dunn said. “We’ve done all the zero gravity research we could on the airplane. (But) there’s always the things we can’t test that you can only do once you’re up there.”
The printer’s performance will teach Made and Space what it needs to know to build a second version, which will travel to the ISS in 2015 and be installed permanently. NASA and private businesses will be able to contract with Made in Space to have parts printed–from scientific equipment to tiny satellites that can be launched directly form the ISS.
“We’ve been building a Silicon Valley startup, but it’s a space company. It’s always been hard for us to prove to people what we’re doing,” Dunn said. “This is one of those points where we hit a big milestone and show the lean startup method works in the space industry.”