SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral on Sunday with a Dragon space capsule aboard carrying the first ever 3D printer to be tested in space.
The additive manufacturing device will eventually enable astronauts to manufacture spare parts directly in orbit without having to wait for resupply missions to bring them from Earth.
The 3D printer, developed by California-based start-up Made in Space, has already flown on three parabolic flights, simulating zero-gravity conditions for short periods of time. However, this will be the first time engineers will be able to conduct more complex tests to see how microgravity affects the additive manufacturing processes.
The study will lead to further improvements in the technology before it becomes a stable equipment of the International Space Station.
Dragon is scheduled to arrive to the ISS on Tuesday - the fifth time the commercial space cargo vehicle will dock at the orbital outpost, including one demonstration flight.
The capsule carries more than 2,268kg of equipment, supplies and science experiments. Apart from the 3D printer, there are 20 live mice aboard that will be used to study effects of microgravity on animals.
The spacecraft will also deliver an instrument called the ISS Rapid Scattometer, to be used for monitoring of oceans and winds from the unique vantage point of the ISS orbiting some 420km above the Earth’s surface. Data from the scattometer will help meteorologists improve weather forecasting and hurricane prediction and monitoring.
Dragon’s launch, originally scheduled for Saturday, was delayed due to bad weather in Florida. It marked the 13th successful consecutive flight of the Falcon 9 rocket, underlining SpaceX’s drive for faster turnover as it came only two weeks after the previous launch.
"We are ramping up for that launch rate, and actually even more than that," Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of mission assurance, told reporters at a pre-launch news conference.
In addition to its $1.6bn (£1bn) 12-mision contract to deliver cargo to the ISS for Nasa, SpaceX recently won a $2.6bn deal that will see the company upgrading its Dragon space capsule to be able to carry human crews.
The company hopes to test-fly the manned Dragon spaceship in 2016.