ISS Utilization: Refabricator Instrument
Working with NASA's ISM (In-Space Manufacturing) Program at, the NASA/MSFC ( Marshall Space Flight Center), Tethers Unlimited's Firmamentum Division is developing a payload for the ISS that will demonstrate in-space recycling and manufacturing to support long-duration manned space missions. This payload, called the Refabricator™, combines a plastic recycling system with a 3D printer to enable astronauts to recycle plastic waste into high-quality 3D printer filament, and then use that filament to fabricate new parts, medical implements, food utensils, and other items that the astronauts need to maintain their spacecraft and perform their missions. 1)
The Refabricator system was developed with the help of NASA's Small Business Innovation Research Program grant worth $2.5 million. It is an FDM/FFF 3D (Fused Deposition Modeling/Fused Filament Fabrication) printer capable of recycling 3D printed parts into filament form in microgravity. The recycling is made possible through the positrusion process developed by Tether Unlimited.
Some background: In 2014, NASA made important progress toward the in-space manufacturing necessary for deep space exploration by "printing" tools in space using a 3-D printer on the International Space Station. 2) 3)
In 2018, the nation's space agency will take the next step toward a sustainable in-space manufacturing capability when it launches a machine that can not only print plastic parts, but can also recycle them back into reusable raw materials to make more and/or different parts.
The machine, coined the "Refabricator," is a device that will accept plastic materials of various sizes and shapes and turn them in to the feedstock used to 3-D print items. The whole process happens in a single automated machine about the size of a dorm room refrigerator.
"When we begin launching humans to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, space will be at a premium," said Niki Werkheiser, manager of In-Space Manufacturing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where the device will be thoroughly tested before launching to the space station. "It simply won't be feasible to send along replacement parts or tools for everything on the spacecraft, and resupplying from Earth is cost and time prohibitive. The Refabricator will be key in demonstrating a sustainable logistics model to fabricate, recycle, and reuse parts and waste materials."
NASA awarded a SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) contract valued at approximately $750,000 to Tethers Unlimited Inc. of Seattle in April 2015, to build the recycling system.
"The Refabricator demonstration is a key advance toward our vision of implementing a truly sustainable, in-space manufacturing ecosystem," said Rob Hoyt, CEO of TUI. "Astronauts could use this technology to manufacture and recycle food-safe utensils, and turn what is now inconvenient waste into feedstock to help build the next generation of space systems. We believe re-using the waste could reduce the cost and risks for NASA and private space exploration missions."
The Refabricator will complete final flight certification testing at the Marshall Center in May 2018 and is slated to launch to station in November 2018. Almost all operations will be remotely commanded and controlled from Marshall's Payload Operations Integration Center – mission control for science on the space station — and TUI. The ability to remotely manage the process can save astronaut time and provide greater autonomy for future spaceflight missions.
"The space station is the ideal proving ground for this important technology," said Werkheiser. "Astronauts are already living and working in space, a mere 250 miles above Earth. Those crew members are helping make discoveries to benefit humans around the world while testing the important technology, life support systems and medical breakthroughs that will enable long-duration space exploration by humans."
The Refabricator will be the first integrated recycler-manufacturer in orbit and may eventually be able to recycle and print, using metal as well as plastic, with very little monitoring from the station crew members. By 2020, NASA wants to create a FabLab (Fabrication Laboratory), to test an integrated, multi-material, on-demand system.
"The FabLab would allow astronauts to select what they want or need from a catalogue of parts and then simply push a button to have it made," said Werkheiser.
This project is an ideal example of how government and small businesses can effectively work together. In this example, NASA and TUI worked hand-in-hand in the rapid development of a brand new technology for in-space applications. NASA provided guidance and insight on how to design the system to successfully meet the stringent space flight certification, safety, and operations constraints.
NASA continues to leverage open competition, including crowd-sourcing, Small Business Innovation Research awards, Broad Agency Announcements, and challenge competitions, to collaborate and meet space needs for space exploration.
Launch: The NIGS (Northrop Grumman Innovation System) Antares 230 vehicle has launched the Cygnus NG-10, named the S.S. John Young, on its way to the International Space Station from MARS (Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport) Pad-0A at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. Liftoff of Antares occurred on 17 November 2018, at 04:01:22 EST (09:01:22 UTC). 4)
Orbit: Near-circular orbit of the ISS, altitude of ~400 km, inclination = 51.6º, period = 93 minutes.
Note: In June 2018, Northrop Grumman acquired Orbital ATK. Since then, Orbital ATK is NGIS ( Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems), a new, fourth business sector of Northrop Grumman.
On November 19, 2018, the Cygnus NG-10 spacecraft arrived in the vicinity of the ISS. Once Cygnus was within 10 meters of the Destiny module, Expedition 57 Flight Engineer Serena Auñón-Chancellor controlled the 17.6 m long robotic Canadarm2 to grab the cargo freighter from its free-flight state. Capture was confirmed at 5:28 a.m. EST (10:28 GMT). 5)
Refabricator on the ISS
• February 11, 2019: The Refabricator system by the US-based aerospace company TUI (Tethers Unlimited Inc.) has been installed on the International Space Station (ISS). The integrated 3D printer and plastic recycler was launched into space in November 2018. 6)
- The CEO of TUI Rob Hoyt said that he was "incredibly proud and thankful for the hard work put in by our team, the astronauts, and the NASA In Space Manufacturing Team to get the Refabricator all the way to installation aboard the space station."
Figure 3: The Refabricator on the International Space Station is a hybrid 3D printer that can also recycle materials to make new items (video credit: ScienceAtNASA, Published on Nov 19, 2018)
While 3D printers are technology that many people are familiar with, there's one 400 km above us on the International Space Station (ISS) that's unlike anything currently found on Earth. It's known as the Refabricator, a hybrid 3D printer that can recycle its hard, polymer plastic numerous times to make new items. About the size of a dorm room refrigerator, the device is controlled by operators on Earth who oversee its manufacturing via video cameras. 7)
Niki Werkheiser, NASA's In-Space Manufacturing Manager at Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Alabama says: "Recyclers on Earth grind plastic pellets to create their products. But that grinding creates material sheer which prevents you from reusing that plastic again – it's no longer strong enough. For this technology demonstration, the company Tethers Unlimited developed a novel recycling process that doesn't require grinding – and that allows us to recycle the plastic multiple times."
The ability to reuse the plastic over and over again is essential for long-term space exploration. Werkheiser says: "We can replace a lot of the things we need when we're orbiting above Earth; we just have them delivered on a resupply mission. But when you're in deep space, you don't have that option; you have to have the ability to make all of the parts you might need, and without having a large stockpile of extra materials."
The Refabricator can even recycle plastic items not normally associated with Earthbound 3D printers. For instance, almost all of the materials that are delivered to the station are packed using foam or plastic bags. Both can be loaded into the Refabricator to deliver items such as a plastic syringe, an eating utensil, or a custom made wrench. That ability limits the amount of backup materials you need to take with you on a long range expedition. After all, in space, space is at a premium.
he Refabricator's technology demonstration will be composed of two phases. During each phase the Refabricator will perform seven cycles of recycling and printing parts while onboard the ISS. All of the items printed by the Refabricator will eventually be sent back to Earth for testing and analyses to determine the effects of repeated recycling on the material properties of the plastic.
Werkheiser notes, "I'm very excited about this technology both in space and back on Earth. I can envision a day where you go to your grocery store and drop your water bottles and plastic bags into a Refabricator, and then select your new phone case or a kitchen gadget or the raw filament that you can use in your 3D printer at home."
2) Janet Anderson. "Full Circle: NASA to Demonstrate Refabricator to Recycle, Reuse, Repeat," NASA, 28 August 2018, URL: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/centers
3) Alan Boyle, "Tethers Unlimited delivers 3-D printer and recycler combo to NASA for space station," GeekWire, 30 May 2018, URL: https://www.geekwire.com/2018/tethers-unlimited-
4) Melissa Gaskill, "NASA, Northrop Grumman Launch Space Station, National Lab Cargo," NASA Release 18-100, 17 November 2018, URL: https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-northrop
5) Derek Richardson, "NG-10 Cygnus brings experiments, supplies to ISS crew," Spaceflight Insider, 19 November 2018, URL: http://www.spaceflightinsider.com/missions/iss/ng-10-cygnus
6) "NASA installs Tether Refabricator aboard ISS for in-space 3D printing," 3D Printing Industry, 11 February 2019, URL: https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/nasa-installs-tether-refabricator
7) "The In-Space Refabricator," NASA Science, 19 November 2018, URL: https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/news-articles/the-in-space-refabricator
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).