3-D Printing in Space? NASA Plans Experiments for SpaceShipTwo

Image: SpaceShipTwo research
A cutaway drawing shows how the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane could be configured to accommodate research payloads.Virgin Galactic

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NASA has lined up 12 research payloads to fly on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, including an experiment aimed at pioneering 3-D printing in outer space.

The goal of the 3-D printing research is to let astronauts create replacement parts, tools or other needed items in space from raw materials, rather than waiting to have those items flown up from Earth. It's a potentially time-saving and cost-saving technology, but the zero-G environment poses extra challenges for what's typically a gravity-dependent manufacturing process.

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The 3-D printing experiment and 11 other payloads were selected through NASA's Flight Opportunities Program to benefit from the few minutes of zero gravity that will be available during SpaceShipTwo's flights to the edge of space.

Suborbital space ventures such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace are hoping to capitalize on offering services for researchers as well as space tourists. Planetary scientist Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute has said that over the long run, research projects could become more of a "killer app" for the suborbital space industry than tourist flights.

A cutaway drawing shows how the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane could be configured to accommodate research payloads.Virgin Galactic

The date of the NASA research flight has not yet been announced. Virgin Galactic hopes to begin commercial operations in New Mexico within the next year, although that timetable depends on the outcome of SpaceShipTwo's test flights.

The 3-D printing experiment has been designed by Made in Space, a company that is also due to send the first spaceworthy 3-D printer to the International Space Station later this year aboard a SpaceX cargo craft.

Other experiments aim to characterize the electromagnetic field environment inside the spacecraft, blaze a trail for on-orbit fuel storage depots, study zero-gravity fluid flow, and fire a projectile into simulated moondust or asteroid material to see how it behaves in weightlessness. For the full list, including the sponsors for each experiment, check out Tuesday's news releases from NASA and Virgin Galactic.

NBCUniversal has established a multi-platform partnership with Virgin Galactic to track the development of SpaceShipTwo and televise Virgin founder Richard Branson's spaceflight.

Planetary scientist Alan Stern is due to discuss suborbital space research as well as NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Uwingu space education venture with NBC News' Alan Boyle at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday on "Virtually Speaking Science," a talk show airing on BlogTalkRadio and in the Second Life virtual world.