SpaceCAL 3D printer on VSS Unity, awaiting launch on June 8, 2024. (Image courtesy of Virgin Galactic) | Imprimante 3D SpaceCAL à bord de VSS Unity, en attente de lancement le 8 juin 2024. (Image reproduite avec l'aimable autorisation de Virgin Galactic)

It’s not a trend yet but possibilities of using 3D printing into space are increasingly being explored in the industry. So far, examples that easily come to my mind include the Refabricator or the recent metal 3D printer from AddUp.

June 8th was a memorable date for another research team – the one of Berkeley University led by Ph.D. student Taylor Waddell. They sent their 3D printing technology – a microgravity 3D printer named “dubbed SpaceCAL” – to space for the first time as part of the Virgin Galactic 07 mission.

The machine spent 140 seconds in suborbital space while aboard the VSS Unity space plane. In that short period, it autonomously printed and post-processed a total of four test parts, including space shuttles and benchy figurines from a liquid plastic called PEGDA.

SpaceCAL performed well under microgravity conditions in past tests aboard parabolic flights, but it still had something to prove,” said Waddell. “This latest mission, funded through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program and with support from Berkeley Engineering and the Berkeley Space Center, allowed us to validate the readiness of this 3D printing technology for space travel.”

Another technology that works well in microgravity conditions

 Hayden Taylor, associate professor of mechanical engineering, led a team of UC Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) researchers that invented Computed Axial Lithography (CAL) technology in 2017.

This type of additive manufacturing, which uses light to shape solid objects out of a viscous liquid, expanded the range of printable geometries and significantly increased the speed at which 3D parts could be printed. And it functioned well in microgravity conditions, opening the door to applications related to space exploration.

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