One of the most worrying problems for a space mission is that you'll be thousands or perhaps even millions of kilometres from home when something suddenly breaks that can't be replaced. However, that worry may become a thing of the past as of next year, thanks to NASA's plan to launch a 3D printer into orbit.
Additive manufacturing — 3D printing's more technical name — is a big deal here on Earth, giving us the ability to produce almost any object we want, whenever we want. Just provide the printer with the necessary materials (plastic, plaster or metals), program the design in, and it will lay down layer after layer, building up a complete 3-dimensional object. However, this whole idea could be an even bigger deal in space, and NASA has already been working on ways to get this technology into orbit.
In 1970, Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert said the now famous words "Houston, we've had a problem here," as what was a simple routine check of their oxygen tanks caused an explosion that put the mission and the astronauts' lives in danger. This year, astronauts on the International Space Station had to repair a coolant leak, and the station suffered (thankfully minor) damage to one of their solar panels. Also, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano was forced to abort a spacewalk when water began leaking into his helmet, bringing the very real threat of him drowning.
In all of these cases, having the ability to produce any part or tool you needed, at any time that you needed, would have likely made these situations a simple footnote in the astronauts' log, rather than being a threat to the mission, to the astronauts' lives, or both.
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There are still some issues that need to be worked out before 3D printers are able to start putting a 'Made in Space' label on things, though. They'll need to address the power requirements for sure, and they'll need a way to deal with the fumes given off by the printing process. Also, there is still a major limitation on what they can produce, because 3D printing metal objects is very difficult and expensive.
Once these issues are solved, though, and you add in the ability for the printer to produce its own spare parts, to recycle printed parts that aren't needed, and possibly even use more types of materials (perhaps harvested from asteroids), and it puts us one step closer to being able to venture out further than lunar orbit, and possibly even live in space permanently.
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