Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited is getting a shot at helping to create an advanced fabrication facility that could manufacture and recycle 3-D printed items in space.
Tethers Unlimited and two other companies will have 18 months to deliver a prototype for the multi-material fabrication lab or FabLab. The other companies are Interlog Corp. of Anaheim, Calif.; and Techshot of Greenville, Ind.
About $10.2 million has been set aside for the prototyping phase of the project. After the prototype is delivered, NASA will select partners for further development of the technology.
“Our team here is very excited to have the opportunity to continue our collaboration with NASA’s In-Space Manufacturing Program to advance the manufacturing and recycling technologies our astronauts will need for deep-space missions,” Tethers Unlimited CEO Robert Hoyt told GeekWire in an email.
The FabLab initiative is part of a NASA program known as Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships or NextSTEP.
NextSTEP’s mission is to support commercial technologies that could aid in beyond-Earth exploration, on the International Space Station as well as potentially on the moon and Mars. For example, an on-site fabrication facility would come in handy on Mars for producing spare parts and tools from feedstock or recycled materials, rather than having to wait for a shipment to arrive from Earth.
“NASA is challenging industry partners to expand possibilities for making, repairing and recycling items in space,” Niki Werkheiser, lead for in-space manufacturing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said today in a news release. “The FabLab prototypes will provide valuable insights and help lay the foundation for meaningful on-demand manufacturing capabilities needed for sustainable human spaceflight missions.”
FabLab builds on initiatives in 3-D printing that have been underway at NASA for years. The first 3-D printer designed for in-space manufacturing was delivered to the space station in 2014. A year later, Tethers Unlimited’s Firmamentum division won a $750,000 contract from NASA for an experimental 3-D printer/recycler called the Refabricator.
Tethers Unlimited’s fridge-sized Refabricator is due to be launched to the space station next year.
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