Somewhere, 254 miles above us, an astronaut might be printing one thing.
Ever for the reason that International Space Station (ISS) welcomed its first residents in November of 2000, there have been printers on board.
Astronauts use them to print out vital mission data, emergency evacuation procedures and, generally, photographs from house. According to NASA, they print roughly 1,000 pages a month on two printers; one is put in on the U.S. facet of the ISS, the opposite within the Russian section.
ISS residents do all this on 20-year-old expertise.
“When the printer was new, it was like 2000-era tech and we had 2000-era laptop computers. Everything worked pretty good,” recalled NASA Astronaut Don Pettit, who introduced the primary printer as much as the ISS. But “the printer’s been problematic for the last five or six years,” mentioned Pettit who’s spent a complete of 1 yr on the station.
“It’s a museum piece,” mentioned Stephen Hunter, Manager of International Space Station (ISS) Computer Resources, referring to the Epson 800 Inkjet printer in use not solely on the ISS, however on the now-retired area shuttles earlier than it.
It’s not that the Space Station has been orbiting with the identical printer since Justin Timberlake was nonetheless N’Sync. NASA had dozens of this printer and, as one failed, they’d ship up one other an identical mannequin.
But now it is time for one thing actually new. In 2018, NASA will ship two model new, specialised printers as much as the station. However, determining the proper of printer to ship was much more difficult than you’d in all probability count on.
A tech dinosaur
Hunter, who has been within the technique of updating the ISS’s workplace expertise for the final two years mentioned that the ISS printers have wanted to get replaced for a very long time. However, he can’t drive over to Best Buy, purchase a brand new printer and launch it into area.
Two years in the past, Hunter began working with HP on an ISS IT overhaul, getting new Gen 2 Z-Book laptops for the crew, so it was solely pure they might flip to them once more for the printer mission.
“We couldn’t pbad up the opportunity to do this,” mentioned Enrique Lores, President of HP’s Imaging, Printing and Solutions enterprise. “It was an incredible technical challenge.”
While the ISS is like an workplace in area, HP could not simply recommend that NASA launch any bizarre laser printer to orbit. Its friable toner mud and vital energy consumption would make it a poor match for all times in micro-gravity.
“NASA had a very unique set of requirements that we had to meet,” mentioned Ronald Stephens Research and Development Manager for HP’s Specialty Printing Systems Division.
NASA wished a printer that might:
“They [HP] had to answer this question: What are the changes I need to make to make sure [the printer] functions properly and safely,” Hunter mentioned.
There are, you would possibly say, mission-critical causes for every one among these necessities.
On the facility entrance, for instance, the ISS generates all its personal electrical energy by way of photo voltaic panels. That means they have to tightly handle energy consumption. Any new system they carry on board should energy environment friendly. One bit of excellent information: HP doesn’t have to alter the facility configuration on the printer. The ISS can provide a regular 110 AV outlet.
‘NASA had a really distinctive set of necessities that we needed to meet.’
On the ink waste entrance, Hunter defined that typical inkjet printers do deposit some further ink in the course of the printing course of. With gravity in place, the ink sometimes stays within the printer and even on the printed sheet. In zero gravity, it floats out. Hunter mentioned astronauts may ingest the ink or it may contaminate the crew’s quite a few on-board experiments.
In addition, printers depend on gravity for paper administration. Whatever HP offered must maintain onto the paper, so it didn’t jam within the printer or float away when the printer’s carried out with it. (Pettit additionally defined that astronauts clear paper jams in area simply as they do on the bottom, “We open all the little doors and see crinkled piece of paper.”)
To work out the kinks of the brand new ISS printer, HP labored with a small group from NASA that included Pettit and three different astronauts.
For Stephens, speaking with the astronauts about their lives on the ISS was an actual eye-opener.
“The biggest ‘aha’ for me was how much life on the space station is like life here,” mentioned Stephens. Astronauts, he mentioned, get up, go to work, and obtain or create paperwork that they should print. Then they “go home” and print out footage from their households and put them on their partitions.
“[They’re] just people doing a job and living at home, which just happens to be in space,” he mentioned.
Astronauts’ issues about printing in area are a lot the identical as they’re on the bottom. “You want it to be uneventful… you want to hit print and have hard copy,” mentioned Pettit who additionally advised me that, with the appearance of tablets and laptops, astronauts do not print now as a lot as they used to.
One factor that’s completely different from printing at house on the bottom is how lengthy the ink lasts. Pettit remembers that, not less than on the outdated printers, it did not final as lengthy. That is, he mentioned due to the zero gravity, which prevents each final little bit of ink from leaving the cartridge.
Instead of constructing a specialised printer from scratch. HP really useful the HP Envy 5600. It’s a regular, all-in-one (printer, scanner, copier, fax) system you should buy at retail for $129.99. But the printers heading as much as the ISS early subsequent yr underwent vital modification.
“We removed the capability to do scanning, fax and copy out of it to reduce weight and remove glbad portions,” mentioned NASA’s Hunter.
Removing what may weigh the printer down or break and develop into an area catastrophe was solely the beginning. HP needed to construct new paper dealing with mechanisms.
The most difficult half was badociated to zero gravity. “What aspect of a mechanical system like a printer utilize gravity as its own regular process?” mentioned HP’s Stephens.
Ultimately, HP went by way of each printer system and element to research how it might be affected by zero gravity.
The printer carriage, as an illustration, hangs on a rod and gravity pulls it down into place. HP needed to exchange that gravitational bias with a mechanical one.
HP turned to 3D printing and even fast-tracked some new, experimental 3D materials — 3D-printed nylon stuffed with glbad beads — that the corporate had been engaged on for the modified area printer.
The distinctive properties of this materials allowed HP to swap out, as an illustration, the a number of components that make up the printer output tray and switch it into one which’s each lighter, versatile and, in the end, extra dependable.
If a 3D printed half breaks, Lores advised me, HP can print out a substitute and ship it to the ISS on the following uncrewed SpaceX Dragon cargo ship.
HP and NASA additionally eliminated the scanner cowl, added quite a few fasteners, changed the shell with fire-retardant plastic and added a major quantity of absorbing materials within the print nicely to catch any wasted ink.
It’s nonetheless a printer
Despite all these modifications, the completed HP area printer nonetheless seems like a printer. It’s 20 inches vast, 16 inches deep and 5 inches excessive. There’s no lid or glbad, however, except for the 3D printed supplies, the ISS’s subsequent printer seems fairly unremarkable.
Up thus far, all of NASA and HP’s work was theoretical. They did all they might to make the HP Envy Zero Gravity Printer space-ready. However, the one option to know if this printer is appropriate to be used on the area station earlier than truly sending it to area, is by testing it in zero gravity and the one method to try this is on a parabolic flight.
Over the course of three days and a dozen or so flights, NASA and HP examined the retrofitted HP Envy on that type of flight. As the modified aircraft loops up and down, pbadengers obtain, on the peak of the curve, about 20-second durations of near-weightlessness. During these instances, for a complete of about 10 minutes, NASA and the HP group examined printing and that the paper flowed by way of the printer and ejected in the proper method.
“It went flawlessly. Everything works to our expectation,” mentioned Hunter.
Lores sees this mission as an affirmation of his enterprise. “The space station is the most advanced office and home in the world (or space). The fact that astronauts have to print gives us some insight that printing is still relevant and people on Earth still need it.”
NASA plans to ship the primary two printers as much as the station on a SpaceX resupply mission scheduled for February 2018.
“We want to use this through the remainder of the ISS program. Officially through 2024, with plans through 2028,” mentioned Hunter.
NASA and HP have retrofitted roughly 50 HP Envy printers and expects each to final roughly two years.
“This will be the last printer they get in the space station,” mentioned Stephens.