The European Space Agency (ESA) has successfully launched its first metal 3D printer to the International Space Station (ISS), marking a significant milestone in in-space manufacturing. This achievement, part of the Cygnus NG-20 resupply mission, positions ESA as a leader in exploring new manufacturing technologies in orbit.
According to Rob Postema, ESA’s technical officer, this project represents a world first in 3D printing metal parts and comes at a time of growing interest in in-space manufacturing. Metal printing poses unique technical challenges, such as high temperatures and laser usage, which need to be overcome to ensure the safety of the crew and the integrity of the ISS. Successful metal 3D printing could enhance in-space manufacturing capabilities, offering benefits like increased strength, conductivity, and rigidity.
Upon 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. The printer’s operations will be remotely monitored and controlled from Earth, allowing for printing activities without continuous astronaut supervision.
The project is a collaboration between ESA and Airbus Defence and Space SAS, with co-funding from ESA. Patrick Crescence of Airbus sees this in-orbit demonstration as a significant step for space exploration innovation, potentially leading to the manufacturing of more complex metallic structures in space, which would be vital for Moon and Mars exploration.
The metal 3D printer utilizes a corrosion-resistant stainless-steel wire commonly used in medical implants and water treatment. It operates through a high-power laser, which is more potent than standard laser pointers. The wire melts and adds metal to the print as it dips into the melt pool, a process engineered to work in microgravity. The printer operates within a sealed box to contain high temperatures and prevent fume exposure to the crew. Venting the printer’s internal oxygen atmosphere to space and replacing it with nitrogen is crucial to prevent oxidation of the hot stainless steel.
The printer’s initial tasks involve creating four shapes, each smaller than a soda can, to test its performance. These objects will be compared with reference prints made on Earth to assess the impact of the space environment on the printing process. Due to noise regulations on the ISS, printing time is limited to four hours daily. After printing, Andreas will pack the objects for their return to Earth for detailed analysis.
This technology demonstration aligns with ESA’s broader goals of creating a circular space economy and facilitating in-situ resource utilization. Metal 3D printing in space has the potential to support future exploration activities and the sustainable use of space resources through in-situ manufacturing, repair, and possibly recycling of space structures.
Thomas Rohr, overseeing ESA’s Materials and Processes Section, emphasizes the significance of this demonstration as a precursor to future space infrastructure manufacturing beyond Earth’s confines.
Overall, the successful launch of ESA’s metal 3D printer to the ISS represents a major advancement in in-space manufacturing and opens up new possibilities for the future of space exploration and resource utilization.