3D printing in space

A 3D Printed Espresso Cup Fit for Space

Espresso cup in space

Whoever dreamed up a 3D printed espresso mid-flight into outer space, obviously needed a caffeine fix. Through creative thinking and innovative design, the idea of 3D printing has made its way to NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). Astronauts now print parts and items as needed, reducing costs and fulfilling needs quickly.

The ISSpresso Machine (source: Italian Space Agency, ASI)
The ISSpresso Machine (source: Italian Space Agency, ASI)

The International Space Station used the first ever 3D printer in space last year. Printed objects were returned to Earth for various testing. Larger printers create bases and structures using Contour Crafting technology. All in all, 3D printing makes repairing damaged parts and equipment easier.

Lack of gravity is the biggest challenge brought forth by printing in outer space but one Italian firm, Argotec, defied odds by creating the ISSpresso machine that produces espresso although there is no gravity. Once researchers took care of the need for caffeinated beverages, another problem came up: How were astronauts to drink the espresso when it floated right out of a cup?

Enter the likes of the Thermal and Fluid Sciences Group at Portland State University. The team consisting of Mark Weislogel, Drew Wollman, and high school student Nathan Ott began working on a design based on one astronaut Don Pettit devised years earlier. By putting their heads together, the group came up with a plan.

The challenge was to create enough surface tension to make the coffee drinkable in outer space. They used a 3D printer to fabricate their creation. The ISSpresso machine and drinking vessels were sent and tested in space.

Samantha Cristoforetti was among the first to drink from the cups. She shared her experience with fans on Twitter. Future studies shed light on what other types of beverages astronauts consume mid-flight. The ISSpresso machine and 3D printed cups are subjected to testing both on Earth and in space to see how improvements make them better and easier to use.