Spaceflight Insider

Contest seeks designs for 3-D printer in space

The zero-g 3-D printer. Photo Credit: Made In Space

The 3-D printer on the ISS was manufactured by Made In Space. Photo Credit: Made In Space

Mouser Electronics, an electronics warehouse company, is sponsoring contest for the design of a 3-D device for use in space. The device can be anything that improves the job or daily life of an astronaut in space. Entries must be submitted by Oct. 7.

Titled the “ISS Challenge EP1”, the contest is open to anyone interested (except for NASA engineers). This includes inventors, professional engineers not affiliated with NASA, students, and hobbyists. Mouser initiated the project with the goal of fostering a new level of innovation for 3-D printing in space.

The ISS currently has a permanent 3-D printer on board. It printed its first tool, an open face wrench, in July of this year. However, the technology for 3-D printing in zero gravity is still in its infancy. Several aspects make printing in space much more challenging than on Earth.

One obstacle is environmental control – giving the printer the ability to filter out toxic gases and nano-particles. On the ISS, much of the atmosphere is reabsorbed, recycled, and re-used.

Endurance is another issue. 3-D printers are fairly fragile, yet any used in space will have to be rugged enough to endure the rigors of launch. Additionally, the weightless environment of space presents another challenge. All tools must have rings or clips to hold them down.

While 3-D printers can print almost anything, all items they print must still first be designed and developed. All specifications and conditions must be entered into the software before anything can be printed. Ideally, all items printed can be designed on Earth and 3-D printed in space.

3-D printing will be crucial in long space voyages where crew members cannot rely on launches from Earth for resupply or waste removal.

Mouser started the contest with the goal of fostering innovation in 3-D printing and space travel. The company is looking for proposals that show thinking outside the box in a manner that addresses issues often ignored as well as designs aimed at improving the daily lives of astronauts.

Because ISS astronauts perform various tasks while on the space station and are often busy, 3-D printing can be remotely conducted from Earth, saving precious crew time.

The grand prize winner of the contest will be awarded a 3-D printer and a consultation with the company Made In Space. Second and third place winners will be awarded a Fluke meter – an instrument that measures electrical quantity, etc.

Entries must be submitted as Computer Animated Design files by the Oct. 7 deadline. The judges will be former Mythbusters host Grant Imahara and former astronaut and ISS commander Chris Hadfield.

As part of the judging, each entry will actually be 3-D printed on board the ISS.

“I just can’t wait to see what each one of you comes up with,” Hadfield said in a video to potential contestants.

Video courtesy of Mouser Electronics


Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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