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Early Sunday morning, SpaceX mission CRS-4 lifted off from Cape Canaveral towards the International Space Station, carrying with it the first 3D printer that will operate in zero gravity. When the astronauts aboard the ISS use the 3D printer, they will become the first humans to carry out off-world manufacturing. It’s not quite the Moon- or Mars-based factory that we’ve always dreamed of, but it’s a very important first step towards manufacturing goods outside of Earth’s gravity, and thus the eventual colonization and industrialization of the Solar System.
The Dragon capsule, which launched aboard a Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket, is the fourth of SpaceX’s minimum of 12 resupply missions to the ISS. It was carrying 4, 885 pounds (2, 215 kg) of cargo, including: the RapidScat instrument, which bounces microwaves off the ocean to measure wind speeds; the Kinetic Launcher for Orbital Payload Systems, for shooting mini satellites out into space; the Bone Densitometer (a reduction in bone density is one of the bigger risks of being an astronaut); and the first zero-gravity 3D printer.
The 3D printer, which is part of the 3D Printing in Zero-G Experiment, was created by Californian company Made In Space. I hadn’t heard of Made In Space before, but it seems like it’s a small startup that was created for the sole purpose of sending 3D printers into space. It sounds like the zero-gravity 3D printer is much the same as your usual on-Earth 3D printer — though it has been ruggedized to survive launch pressures, and it went through rigorous safety checks to ensure it can’t harm the astronauts aboard the ISS. In a conventional 3D printer, gravity is typically used to hold layers in place as they’re deposited — but obviously the Made In Space 3D printer can’t do that. (Sadly, the website doesn’t say how it’s done.)
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