There are few technologies as exciting as 3-D printing and a prototype printer has been given the ‘all-clear’ by NASA for a microgravity mission to the International Space Station.

In August, a small cube containing the first 3-D printer designed for space will be launched as a part of the SpaceX CRS-4 Dragon vehicle’s resupply mission payload. Its job will be to prove that 3-D printing can indeed be achieved in the microgravity environment, potentially paving the way to wholesale printing of basic tools for use on board the orbiting outpost and beyond.

Made In Space? 3-D Printer Fit for Microgravity

The Made In Space printer passed NASA certification early, which allows the prototype to be flown aboard CRS-4 instead of a later resupply mission. It already has a wealth of technological development in the microgravity environment having been flown by Made In Space engineers on the Zero-G Corporation’s modified Boeing 727 hyperbolic flights that simulate zero-gravity.

Through the use of extrusion-based additive manufacturing techniques, the printer is designed to build solid objects by printing them layer by layer. Initially the experiment will print 21 demonstration parts — including test coupons, parts and tools, according to a Made In Space press release — and the whole process will be carefully watched by project engineers via an HD video link for analysis.

ANALYSIS: Print Me a Moon Base!

“Years of research and development have taught us that there were many problems to solve to make Additive Manufacturing work reliably in microgravity,” said Michael Snyder, Lead Engineer and Director of R&D for Made In Space. “Now, having found viable solutions, we can welcome a great change — the ability to manufacture on-demand in space is going to be a paradigm shift for the way development, research, and exploration happen in space.”

Much hope is pinned on 3-D printing in space and this prototype could open the door to more sophisticated in-space printed applications.

Recently, scientists have been investigating the possibility of automated 3-D printed satellites or satellite parts in space. Small cubesats have recently been launched sporting 3-D printed parts. Also, there is some hope that entire habitats could be printed robotically ahead of a future manned mission to the moon and Mars.

ANALYSIS: 3-D Printed Pizza to Feed Mars Colonists?

This technology could also herald a new era for food production — basic foodstuffs could be printed to include a very delicate balance of nutrients; this wouldn’t only be useful in space (imagine a 3-D printer version of the Star Trek food replicator) it could also become a low-waste, high nutrition technology that could change the way we see food. With increasing pressures on worldwide food production, 3-D food printing may help alleviate these stresses, particularly in developing nations.

But for now, it will be interesting to see how the Made In Space 3-D printer fares in space and, all going well, will provide a glimpse of new and powerful orbital resource.