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NASA is showing its serious interest in aerospace 3d printing by flying an experiment on the International Space Station called the 3D Printing In Zero-G Technology Demonstration. The experiment, due to last from March, 2014 to September, 2014, will prove the concept of 3d printing in microgravity. It points the way to a time when astronauts on space stations and deep space expeditions will use 3d printers as a machine shop, making spare parts and other items at will. It is hoped that in this way human beings can sustain themselves in space, often using materials that can be found at hand. The experiment was developed by a commercial company called Made In Space, Inc. (MIS).
The goals of the experiment include, according to NASA:
Conducting a detailed analysis of how acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) thermoplastic resin behaves in microgravity. ABS could be a material that could easily be made into spare parts in space.
Making a comparison between 3d printing in the Earth’s gravity and in a microgravity environment.
A portion of the experimental program will involve participation by students, who will design items that the astronauts on the ISS will create using the 3d printer. In this way NASA will fulfill its mandate to encourage Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education.
NASA also expects that the experiment will lead to numerous Earthly applications. The idea is that by creating the same sorts of things in microgravity and on Earth, technology can be advanced to improve 3d printing on both Earth and in space.