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Tethers Unlimited wins NASA grant for FabLab

Refabricator
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’s been undergoing tests at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. The unit is to go to the space station next year. (NASA Photo / Emmett Given)

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.

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Relativity Space reveals plan for 3-D printed rockets

Relativity Space factory
Relativity Space’s Stargate 3-D printer is at work at the company’s Los Angeles factory, with a 3-D printed fuel tank sitting at left. (Relativity Space Photo)

Can a robotic 3-D printer spit out all the parts of a rocket without humans stepping in until the end? Relativity Space says that’s what it’s working toward.

The company, which has its roots in the Seattle area and is now headquartered in Los Angeles, stepped out of the shadows today with a website that shows off its technology. Two of its founders, CEO Tim Ellis and chief technology officer Jordan Noone, are veterans of Blue Origin, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space venture.

Ellis provided hints of what Relativity Space was up to during a congressional hearing in July, but the updated website lays out the plan in much more detail. An on-the-scene report from Bloomberg News provides additional color.

Relativity’s aim is to reduce the cost of launch vehicles dramatically by streamlining the manufacturing process. It says its fully 3-D printed rockets will have only 1,000 parts, compared to the 100,000 or more moving parts that a traditional rocket contains.

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Scientists ID fish 40 years after it was caught

Duckbilled fish
The duckbilled clingfish has a broad snout like a duck’s bill. (Kevin Conway and Glenn Moore)

After spending 40 years sitting in a museum jar, a toothy fish from the waters off Australia has been identified as a previously unknown species dubbed the duckbilled clingfish.

To document the species’ characteristics, researchers turned to technologies that weren’t widely available when the fish was caught in 1977: digitized X-ray scans and 3-D printing.

The fish tale was laid out last week in the journal Copeia.

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NASA backs mini-antennas and 3-D printer

Cubesats
Nanosatellites tumble through space after their deployment from the International Space Station. Kymeta is working on flat-panel communication antennas that could be placed on such satellites. (NASA Photo)

Flat-panel antennas that are tiny enough to fit on a nanosatellite and a 3-D printer that can recycle space station trash are among the Seattle-area projects that have won seed money in NASA’s latest round of grant-making.

They’re just a couple of the 133 proposals selected for contracts of up to $750,000 under NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program, or SBIR. But what’s notable about Kymeta’s mini-antennas and Tethers Unlimited Inc.’s ERASMUS plastics recycler and 3-D printer is that they could spawn products for use on Earth as well as in space.

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777X tool sets record for 3-D-printed objects

Image: Judge measures tool
Guinness World Records’ judge, Michael Empric, measures the trim tool (Credit: ORNL)

A trim-and-drill tool that will be tested during construction of the Boeing Co.’s next-generation 777X jet has already produced something notable: recognition from Guinness World Records as the world’s largest solid 3-D-printed object.

The trim tool, developed at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, was made in only 30 hours using carbon fiber and ABS thermoplastic composite materials. It’s 17.5 feet long, 5.5 feet wide and 1.5 feet tall, and weighs about 1,650 pounds.

After Oak Ridge completes verification testing, the tool will get its tryout at a Boeing production facility in St. Louis, Mo. It’ll be used to secure the jet’s composite wing for drilling and machining before assembly.

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NASA orders a 3-D printer/recycler for space

Image: Refabricator
TUI/Firmamentum’s Positrusion device turns 3-D-printed items into plastic filament. The recycler would be paired with a 3-D printer in Firmamentum’s Refabricator. (Credit: Tethers Unlimited)

Firmamentum, a division of Tethers Unlimited Inc. in Bothell, Wash., says it has won $750,000 in NASA funding to build a combination 3-D printer and plastic recycler for the International Space Station.

The device, known as the Refabricator, is due to be delivered to NASA next year, said Rob Hoyt, president of TUI/Firmamentum.

“This is an experiment to see how many times you can recycle plastic in the microgravity environment before the polymers break down,” Hoyt told GeekWire today at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2016 conference in Seattle.

Firmamentum’s plastic-recycling process, known as Positrusion, was the focus of earlier experiments funded by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program, or SBIR. Hoyt said the most recent award was made last Friday, with backing from SBIR as well as the In-Space Manufacturing project at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

Another company, California-based Made In Space, already has built a couple of 3-D printers that went into use on the space station. The 3-D printers melt down plastic filament and deposit tiny squirts of the stuff in a computer-controlled pattern to produce tools and other objects.

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Space station’s 3-D printer will churn out art

Image: Internet visualization
Majestic.com is working with Made In Space to have a 3-D visualization of global Internet connections turned into a plastic sculpture, using the 3-D printer that’s being sent to the International Space Station. The sculpture should look something like this. (Credit: Majestic)

The first objects to be created in orbit using the upgraded 3-D printer that’s on its way to the International Space Station are likely to be strictly utilitarian, but there’s fun stuff to come.

The Additive Manufacturing Facility, a 3-D printer designed for use in zero-G, was launched on Tuesday night along with more than 7,500 pounds’ worth of additional cargo aboard Orbital ATK’s uncrewed Cygnus cargo capsule. The bus-sized spacecraft, known as the S.S. Rick Husband, is due to rendezvous with the space station on Saturday.

This is actually the second 3-D printer to go into outer space. The first one was an experiment, built by a commercial venture called Made In Space.

This time around, Made In Space partnered with Lowe’s Innovation Labs to produce a more capable 3-D printer.  The main idea is to provide a way to fabricate plastic tools and spare parts by following computerized instructions that are sent up from the ground.

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A 3-D bioprinter for artificial body parts?

Image: 3D-printed ear
A human ear structure sits in a dish after it was printed with a device called the Integrated Tissue-Organ Printing System. (Credit: Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine)

Researchers say they’ve developed a 3-D bioprinter that can create artificial body parts with ready-made channels for getting nutrients and oxygen to the implanted cells. If the technology can be perfected, the device could solve one of the biggest obstacles to creating 3D-printed organs: how to nourish masses of manufactured tissue.

“It can fabricate stable, human-scale tissue of any shape,” Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, said in a news release. “With further development, this technology could potentially be used to print living tissue and organ structures for surgical implantation.”

Atala and his colleagues describe their experiments with the bioprinter, known as the Integrated Tissue-Organ Printing System or ITOP, in a study published Feb. 15 by Nature Biotechnology.

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Airbus Ventures backs 3-D printing and design

Image: Local Motors LM3D Swim
Local Motors is working on a 3D-printed car called the LM3D Swim. (Credit: Local Motors)

Airbus Ventures, the European aerospace giant’s Silicon Valley spin-off, says the first investment from its $150 million venture fund is going to Local Motors, a Phoenix-based company that aims to sell 3D-printed cars based on open-source designs.

“Not since the space race has there been a bigger opportunity for aerospace innovation,” Tim Dombrowski, managing general partner of Airbus Ventures, wrote in Friday’s announcement on Medium’s website.

The $150 million fund, Airbus Group Venture Fund I, will take advantage of opportunities to “accelerate innovation in near ground, air and space flight,” Dombrowski wrote.

He acknowledged that Local Motors “may seem like a surprising investment” for Airbus but argued that the deal was a “perfect fit.”

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3-D printer makes hardware from asteroid metal

Image: 3-D printed hardware
This spacecraft prototype was created on a 3-D printer using metal from a meteorite found in Argentina. The object sits on the part of the space rock that was left over. (Credit: Planetary Resources)

A palm-sized prototype spacecraft is the first geometric object to be 3-D printed from asteroid metal, Redmond-based Planetary Resources says.

The shiny object is being shown off at the International CES show in Las Vegas to boost Planetary Resources’ vision of mining precious materials from near-Earth asteroids. The feat also gives a boost to 3D Systems’ direct metal printer.

“It’s really an eye-opener for people,” Planetary Resources’ president and CEO, Chris Lewicki, told GeekWire.

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