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ESA's innovative metal 3D printer arrives on the ISS

ESA’s innovative metal 3D printer arrives on the ISS

ESA’s innovative metal 3D printer arrives on the ISS

by Erica Marchand

Paris, France (SPX), February 01, 2024

The space manufacturing sector is set to see a new advancement as the European Space Agency (ESA) successfully launches its first metal 3D printer to the International Space Station (ISS), marking a significant milestone in space manufacturing. This breakthrough, part of the Cygnus NG-20 resupply mission, puts ESA at the forefront of research into new in-orbit manufacturing technologies.

Rob Postema, ESA’s technical director, describes the pioneering nature of this project: “This new 3D printer that prints metal parts represents a world first at a time of growing interest in space manufacturing.” He compares this to existing polymer-based ones 3D printers on the ISS and emphasizes the technical challenges that metal printing brings, such as high temperatures and the use of lasers. This endeavor is not just about innovation; It’s about ensuring the safety of the crew and the integrity of the ISS given the limited maintenance options in space. Successful metal 3D printing would increase the potential of manufacturing in space, providing benefits such as increased strength, conductivity and rigidity, according to Postema.

Installation and operation
After reaching the ISS, ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen will oversee the installation of the approximately 180 kg printer in the European Drawer Rack Mark II within the Columbus module. In particular, the operation of the printer is monitored and controlled remotely from Earth, allowing printing activities without constant monitoring by an astronaut.

The project, led by Airbus Defense and Space SAS and co-financed with ESA, is an example of collaboration between the agency and industry partners. Airbus’ Patrick Crescent sees this in-orbit demonstration as a significant step in innovation in space exploration, potentially leading to the production of more complex metal structures in space, a key advantage for lunar and Mars exploration.

Innovative material and process
The printer uses corrosion-resistant stainless steel wire commonly used in medical implants and water treatment, and uses a high-power laser that is significantly more powerful than traditional laser pointers. When immersed in the molten pool, the wire melts and adds metal to the pressure, a complicated process carefully designed for use in zero gravity.

ESA materials engineer Advenit Makaya highlights the complexity of this process: “The molten pool of the printing process is very small… so the surface tension of the liquid metal holds it securely in place in weightlessness.” The printer operates in a sealed enclosure to to contain the high temperatures and prevent personnel from being exposed to the fumes. Additionally, it is important to vent the printer’s internal oxygen atmosphere to space and replace it with nitrogen to prevent oxidation of the hot stainless steel.

Testing and analyzing
One of the printer’s first tasks is to create four molds, each smaller than a soda can, to test its performance. These objects will be compared to reference prints made on Earth to evaluate the influence of the space environment on the printing process. Due to noise regulations on the ISS, printing time is limited to four hours per day.

After printing, Andreas packages the objects for their return to Earth for detailed analysis. One print will go to the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany, two more will go to ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Center and the final print will go to the Technical University of Denmark for thermal properties studies.

Imagining a sustainable space future
This technology demonstration underpins ESA’s broader objectives, which include creating a circular economy in space and facilitating local resource use. Tommaso Ghidini, Head of ESA’s Mechanical Division, explains the potential of metal 3D printing in space for future exploration activities and the sustainable use of space resources through in-situ manufacturing, repair and possibly recycling of space structures.

Thomas Rohr, Head of ESA’s Materials and Processes Division, further underlines the importance of this demonstration, heralding it as a pioneer for the future manufacture of space infrastructure beyond Earth’s boundaries.

Read more about Andreas and science on the Huginn page.

related links

Manned and robotic exploration at ESA

Space Technology News – Applications and Research