NASA scientists plan to take 3D printers into space to enable astronauts to create tools, and even food, onboard the International Space Station and later on the moon or even Mars.
NASA's chief administrator Charles Bolden talked about 3D printers and what the technology could mean to future space exploration during a tour of the Ames Research Center late last week. Speaking to employees, news media and U.S. Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Bolden said the printing technology could be key as humans travel deeper into space.
"As NASA ventures further into space, [whether] redirecting an asteroid or sending humans to Mars, we'll need transformative technology to reduce cargo weight and volume," Bolden said. "In the future, perhaps astronauts will be able to print the tools and components they need in space."
3D printing is a high-tech manufacturing process that creates objects by laying down successive layers. Last week, researchers at Princeton University reported that they used the process to create a functioning ear that that can "hear" radio frequencies beyond the range of normal human capability.
Made in Space, a company based in the Ames Research Park in Moffett Field, Calif., noted in a recent blog post that it is testing 3D printers in zero-gravity environments for NASA. Testing will be focused on the long-term effects of microgravity on the technology.
The company also said it is scheduled to send a 3D printer to be tested on the space station in 2014.
NASA also announced last week that it is exploring the idea of using 3D printers to create food for humans on deep space missions.
NASA awarded a research contract to Systems and Materials Research Consultancy of Austin to study the feasibility of using 3D printing to create human-grade food. The space agency referred to the idea as a "very early stage concept" that may or may not mature into usable technology.
It is several years from being tested in space, according to NASA.
If the technology to "print" food on a spacecraft could be perfected, it would be a huge boon for space travel.
One of the many obstacles to sending humans to Mars or beyond is how the astronauts would be able to carry enough food on the spacecraft for a trip that could last months or years.