The world’s most fascinating research lab floats roughly 220 miles above the earth’s surface. The International Space Station (ISS) is a home for astronauts, a facility for conducting experiments in astronomy, biology, meteorology, and physics, and a base for testing systems and equipment for lunar and Mars missions. Though it’s only a little bigger than a football field, it’s a hugely important site for learning about living and working in space.
Like any lab, the ISS needs computers and printers. NASA began launching HP ZBook Workstations to the ISS in 2016, with approximately 120 slated to be deployed in the future. Earlier this year, it selected the HP OfficeJet 5740 Printer as a “Next Generation Printer” for the ISS, and HP began developing a custom HP Envy Zero-Gravity Printer for 3D printing at the station.
YES, PRINTING IN SPACE
With space ironically at a premium, you might expect the ISS to be paperless, but the mission-critical nature of virtually everything aboard demands physical copies. Operational procedures, updates to emergency measures, and backups in case of electronic malfunctions require printed materials. Crews print letters and photographs to keep family close, and projects and reports to send to schoolchildren. Altogether, astronauts print an average of two reams of paper a month, requiring a triple-duty printer that operates in an enterprise environment and as a home and office printer—all in zero gravity.
For nearly a quarter of a century, HP’s Specialty Printing Systems (SPS) team has been using HP print technology to produce all kinds of things that people handle every day, such as ATM receipts, credit card bills, and passports. But designing a printer for outer space pushed the SPS team to reinvent the printer.
Creative reengineering with 3D printing
Working closely with astronauts and NASA personnel, we checked off a long list of requirements: flame retardant plastics, ink waste containment, no glass (for safety reasons), wired and wireless connectivity, and so on. All features had to work perfectly without the pull of gravity.
The HP Envy 5700 printer came closest to what NASA needed, so we started there. We added flexibility with HP Multi Jet Fusion, a 3D printing technology that will allow the team to manufacture in low volume while maintaining high durability. To keep things tidy, we created a special part to catch paper in zero gravity.
By designing the HP Zero-G Envy printer with 3D printed production parts, we were able to reduce the number of parts. With fewer points of failure, the printer becomes more reliable. Another bonus: Off-the-shelf ink cartridges are governed by surface tension and capillary force, so they don’t require gravity to function properly.
Testing for zero-G
The SPS team ran various simulations to see how the printer would work in zero gravity. (One involved building test beds that held printers upside down or at a 45-degree angle.) But simulations are never perfect, so for the final system validation, we loaded the printer onto an airplane capable of creating a zero-gravity environment. For three days we tested the printer in a truly weightless setting, verifying that the design would function flawlessly on the ISS.
HP is delivering a total of 50 printers for the ISS, with the first Zero-G Envy printers heading to the station on the Space-X 14 rocket in 2018. Additional printers will be launched on future fights to support the planned deployment of 2-3 printers for crew use. The rest will be used to replace the printers on a regular cycle through 2028.
I couldn’t be prouder to be part of the team that is working with NASA and international partners to bring us closer to the next evolution of living and working in space. Come March, each time I look up at the sky, I’ll search for the third brightest object, and think about the printers we’ve made and the amazing discoveries they’re capturing.
Enrique Lores is president of imaging and printing business at HP.
This story was created with and commissioned by HP.