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Testing the Refabricator
Payload development engineer Marko Baricevic of Tethers Unlimited Inc. conducts flight certification tests at Marshall Space Flight Center. (NASA Photo / Emmett Givens)

There’s nothing new about having a 3-D printer in space, but how about a 3-D printer that also recycles plastic to turn old stuff into new? Just such a gizmo is due to be delivered to the International Space Station next week.

Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited built the device, which is about the size of a mini fridge and is known as the Refabricator, in cooperation with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. After months of testing, the Refabricator is on the payload manifest for Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo resupply flight, scheduled for liftoff from Virginia’s Wallops Flight Facility on Nov. 15.

If all proceeds according to schedule, the uncrewed Cygnus craft should arrive at the station a couple of days after launch. Once the cargo is unloaded, the Refabricator will be installed and put through a series of test prints.

The plan calls for standardized samples to be printed out, using plastic feedstock. Those samples can then be recycled back into filament through a process that Tethers Unlimited calls “Positrusion.” Researchers will check how the quality of the 3-D printing job holds up over the course of several cycles of printing and recycling.

Tethers Unlimited’s Refabricator is a recycler and 3-D printer in one unit, which is about the size of a dorm-room refrigerator. This is the tech demonstration unit that underwent tests at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. (NASA Photo / Emmett Given)

Tethers Unlimited fabricated the Refabricator under the terms of a $2.5 million Phase 3 contract from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program.

The first 3-D printer designed for use in space was built by Made In Space and sent up to the space station in 2014.

Eventually, NASA intends to beam up the plans to make (and recycle) components in space rather than having to send up the components themselves. That type of in-space manufacturing capability will come in especially handy for astronauts on long-duration trips to the moon and Mars.

Tethers Unlimited is also involved in a different space manufacturing project called FabLab, aimed at manufacturing and recycling 3-D printed items produced from a variety of materials, including metal as well as plastic.

Made In Space, meanwhile, is working on a different system for producing precision components from metal and plastic materials in space.

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