The first zero-g 3D printer is about to launch into orbit (update: launch scrubbed)

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The first zero-g 3D printer is about to launch into orbit (update: launch scrubbed)

Gravity. More than the name of a killer movie, it's likely something we take for granted every single day. After all, nearly everything we do is reliant on the idea that stuff stays in place when we stop holding it. Astronauts don't have that luxury, however, and when even simple tasks take a ton of effort, something relatively complex like using a 3D printer is even harder. Why would astronauts need one of those? Well, because stuff breaks in space, and replacing a busted part isn't as simple as hitting Home Depot -- just ask the crew of Apollo 13. To help get around that, the folks at Made in Space have designed a 3D printer that circumvents the lack of Earth's gravity when used in orbit. Instead of molten filament essentially "stacking" on itself to form an object like it does planetside, according to The Verge, the Zero-G Printer liquid's surface-tension holds a widget together.

Update: No launch tonight! Weather conditions forced a postponement. According to NASA, the next launch window is tomorrow night, on the 21st at about 1:52 AM ET.


If everything goes according to plan (an August launch was scheduled previously), the proof-of-concept model pictured above will launch into orbit early tomorrow morning aboard a SpaceX Dragon rocket at 2:14 AM ET / 5:14 AM PT (you can watch the launch live on NASA TV, the stream is embedded below). Should the unit prove worthy in its test run, the outfit says a larger model capable of printing with harder plastics could eventually start manufacturing, among other things, commercial micro-satellites on-board the International Space Station. There are also plans to make a gizmo that'd allow astronauts to melt tools down and repurpose the plastic into another tool when the need came. Made in Space says that this focus on sustainability could bring down costs -- and launch weight -- by effectively letting Mission Control email plans for a part to the astronauts instead of launching a rocket every time a petri dish or something else is needed. The team is even toying with the idea of sending 3D-printing robots to Mars or the moon and using their respective soils as printing material for future structures. Crazy!

[Base image credit: FragileOasis/Flickr]

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