While NASA creates with one hand, it destroys with the other. The next supply ship for the International Space Station will carry an advanced 3D printer and a test of how fire spreads in space when it blasts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida today.
In addition to carrying food, water and other regular supplies to the ISS, the craft will loft the Additive Manufacturing Facility, an upgraded version of the 3D printer already in use on the station.
“The printer that’s already up there is basically a prototype, it was just meant to see if the process will work,” says Brad Kohlenberg of Made In Space, the Californian firm behind the printers.
“The second printer will be able to print with multiple materials, has about eight times the print volume and can print faster with higher resolution.”
NASA will use the printer to manufacture objects in orbit, but Made in Space will also take orders from other paying customers who want access to the ISS.
Launching anything to the ISS is expensive and you have to wait for room on spacecraft like Cygnus, but plans for 3D printers can simply be emailed – it’s the closest thing we’ve got to teleportation. Eventually, Made in Space plans to produce entire satellites.
Fire in the hole?
Also launching on Cygnus is NASA’s Spacecraft Fire Experiment, or Saffire. Once the spacecraft has reached the ISS and been unloaded by the astronauts, it will be stuffed full of waste and sent back down to Earth to burn up in the atmosphere.
On the way down NASA researchers will start a fire inside a 1 metre-long box inside the craft and watch how it behaves. It will be the largest man-made fire ever created in space, and understanding how it spreads will help NASA design safety features to mitigate the risk of fire on crewed spacecraft.
The astronauts will also unload the Meteor Composition Determination, a camera designed to watch as meteors enter the Earth’s atmosphere and analyse their chemical properties, and Strata-1, a study of how regolith – the “soil” found on the moon and asteroids – behaves in microgravity.
The findings from the latter could feed into the Asteroid Redirect Mission, NASA’s long-term plan to pluck a boulder off an asteroid and bring it back to orbit the moon, where humans will visit it.