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This small plastic nameplate may not look like much, but it represents a 'transformative moment' in space exploration.

First 'Made in Space' object rolls off space station's new 3D-printer

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Wednesday, November 26, 2014, 3:21 PM - It may not be as good at a replicator from Star Trek, but it's the next best thing! The very first 'Made in Space' object has been produced on the International Space Station, as the crew fired up their brand new 3D printer on Monday night.

The International Space Station is a monumental achievement in human space exploration, as this outpost in orbit has seen continuous human habitation for over 14 years now. However, there's a great expense that goes into running the station. Yes, there's getting the crew rotations up there and back, and keeping them breathing, and warm, and fed, and occupied with conducting great science experiments while they're up there. All of that costs money. However, every time something breaks down, or they need to install a new piece of equipment, replacement parts and equipment need to go through a lengthy and costly process of being prepared and loaded onto a rocket to blast off from here on Earth. Further complications can arise if a delivery is delayed (like what happened with SpaceX in Dec 2013), or the delivery rocket blows up on the launch pad (such as the Orbital Sciences accident in late October).

NASA's 3-D printer, Portal. Credit: NASA/Made In Space

The new addition of a special 3D printer, which is designed to operate in a zero-g environment, is a real game-changer for the station and its crew.

"This is the first time we've ever used a 3-D printer in space, and we are learning, even from these initial operations," said Niki Werkheiser, project manager for the International Space Station 3-D Printer, according to a NASA press release. "As we print more parts we’ll be able to learn whether some of the effects we are seeing are caused by microgravity or just part of the normal fine-tuning process for printing. When we get the parts back on Earth, we’ll be able to do a more detailed analysis to find out how they compare to parts printed on Earth."

Now, if something breaks down, rather than going on a spacewalk to retrieve a spare part, or having to wait for a (potentialy delayed) delivery from Earth, all mission control needs to do is send an email to the station with the specifications for the needed part, and the 3D printer will do the rest.

What was the first object to 'roll off' the printer? A plastic faceplate for the printhead - the part that extrudes the plastic that's used to build up objects - with the logos of NASA and Made in Space Inc. embossed on the front.

The very first 3D-printed object from space. Credit: NASA

"We chose this part to print first because, after all, if we are going to have 3-D printers make spare and replacement parts for critical items in space, we have to be able to make spare parts for the printers," Werkheiser said, according to NASA. "If a printer is critical for explorers, it must be capable of replicating its own parts, so that it can keep working during longer journeys to places like Mars or an asteroid. Ultimately, one day, a printer may even be able to print another printer."

Have they learned anything so far?

Indeed they have! According to NASA, when the current station commander, American astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore, attempted to remove the faceplate from the printer tray, he found that it took more effort than they anticipated. They'll have to wait until they get the part back down to Earth to be sure of the reason for this, but it may, possibly, be due to differences in how the layers bond together in the microgravity environment.

What's next for this technology?

While this printer is mainly part of the testing of the technology in the zero-g environment, it will ultimately be able to provide spare parts for the station (and itself).

Going into the future from there, if distinct advantages can be discovered in how objects are manufactured in zero-g, it could eventually result in orbiting factories to supply us with needed components here on Earth. Taking that a step further, this type of manufacturing could be used to build spacecraft (human and robotic) in orbit, sparing them the necessity of enduring the jarring trip into space from the Earth's surface, which could lead to new designs that specifically take advantage of the space environment. Sufficiently advanced 3D printers could even use local resources for missions to an asteroid, or the Moon, or Mars, reducing the need to bring raw materials on the trip.

CLICK BELOW TO WATCH: What is life like on the International Space Station?

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