NASA astronauts have reportedly installed the first combination 3D printer and plastic recycling system aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The device, called the Refabricator, was developed by Tethers Unlimited and will enable astronauts to not only 3D print in space but also recycle and reuse plastic materials.
The Refabricator was developed by Tethers Unlimited, a private aerospace company located near Seattle, WA, in close collaboration with NASA’s In-Space Manufacturing Program at the Marshall Space Flight Center. The project, which has been underway for some time, culminated in a launch this past November, which brought the plastic recycling machine to the ISS. According to reports, the device arrived safely and is now installed aboard the space station.
The device combines a plastic recycling system and a 3D printer in a machine about the size of a mini-fridge, and gives astronauts the ability to transform plastic waste into 3D printing filament, which they can then use to fabricate new parts, including medical instruments, food utensils, and other objects they may need. The device marks an important step towards sustainability in space, where resources are minimal (because of the high costs of launching cargo into space).
Though the Refabricator was tested extensively at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the hybrid machine will undergo more testing and experiments aboard the ISS. These tests will begin in the next few weeks, once the machine has been fully checked out. Once they are complete, the recycling and 3D printing can commence!
Aboard the ISS, Tethers Unlimited’s Refabricator is expected to offer a number of benefits, including reduced mission costs (because of the ability to repurpose plastic waste), minimize logistics and waste handling challenges and improve mission resiliency.
“The Refabricator is key in demonstrating a sustainable model to fabricate, recycle and reuse parts and waste materials on extended space exploration missions,” commented Niki Werkheiser, manager of in-space manufacturing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
The Refabricator joins Made In Space’s Additive Manufacturing Facility aboard the ISS.