In 2014, NASA made important progress toward the in-space manufacturing necessary for deep space exploration by “printing” tools in space using a 3-D printer on the International Space Station.
In 2018, the nation’s space agency will take the next step toward a sustainable in-space manufacturing capability when it launches a machine that can not only print plastic parts, but can also recycle them back into reusable raw materials to make more and/or different parts.
The machine, coined the “Refabricator,” is a device that will accept plastic materials of various sizes and shapes and turn them in to the feedstock used to 3-D print items. The whole process happens in a single automated machine about the size of a dorm room refrigerator.
“When we begin launching humans to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, space will be at a premium,” said Niki Werkheiser, manager of In-Space Manufacturing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where the device will be thoroughly tested before launching to the space station. “It simply won’t be feasible to send along replacement parts or tools for everything on the spacecraft, and resupplying from Earth is cost and time prohibitive. The Refabricator will be key in demonstrating a sustainable logistics model to fabricate, recycle, and reuse parts and waste materials.”