February 27, 2024

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The European Space Agency sends the first metal 3D printer into space

The European Space Agency sends the first metal 3D printer into space

Three years after testing the first 3D printer for plastics on board the space station, the first metal 3D printer will soon be installed on the International Space Station. The tests to be performed can be a Game changer For future missions to the Moon and Mars. Five questions about this new achievement in AM history.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced that a metal 3D printer will soon be used on the International Space Station. The metal printer was developed by a consortium of Airbus Defense and Space, AddUp, Cranfield University and Hightech Engineering. The program is supported by European Space Agency.

Insight into the properties of 3D printed parts important for future missions to the Moon and Mars

An example of the first parts to be printed aboard the International Space Station (ESA photo)

What is the importance of 3D printing on board the International Space Station?

International astronauts stay there for months at a time. Meanwhile, sometimes a part breaks. So far, they have had access to plastic 3D printers to print any replacement parts if they are not available. After all, it can take months to source parts from the ground. This logistical constraint will become greater in the coming decades at future lunar and Martian stations. Although the raw material still needs to be fired, printing the part is still more efficient than transporting it to the final destination in its entirety.

What can a metal 3D printer add to existing AM facilities?

According to Guenael Arredon, principal engineer at Airbus Space Assembly, this involves printing mechanically compressed parts that will be stronger than the polymer version. “Astronauts will be able to create tools such as wrenches or fastening interfaces that can connect different parts together instantly. The flexibility and rapid availability of 3D printing will greatly improve the autonomy of astronauts,” said Airbus’ chief engineer.

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Image: ESA/Airbus

What type of metal printer is this?

One of the consortium partners is AddUp, the French AM group that develops DED technology. The metal printer that will soon be mounted on the plate prints using stainless steel wire. The parts will be a maximum of 9 x 5 cm. The size of the whole machine is only 80 x 70 x 40 cm. 3D printing a part would take 40 hours in space.

Can you 3D print in a weightless environment?

What are the biggest challenges of 3D printing in space?

explains Sébastien Girault, systems engineer for metal 3D printers at Airbus. “The first challenge facing this technology demonstrator was its size. On Earth, current metal 3D printers are installed in a laboratory of at least ten square metres. To create the prototype of the International Space Station, we had to shrink the printer to the size of a washing machine. Safety was It is the second challenge. The material is melted by a laser beam. To protect the space station from heat, the printer is placed in a metal box that acts like a safe. The third challenge is gravity, or rather the lack of it. That is why metal wires were chosen as raw materials and not as powder. The fourth challenge is Capture the fumes that are emitted. Filters are used for this purpose, so that the fumes do not enter the space station itself.

What exactly will be tested with these metal printers?

To see if 3D printing in weightlessness has no effect on the properties of the parts, the printed parts will return to Earth on a subsequent mission to the International Space Station. Here is a copy of the ISS printer that has identical parts printed on it. This way, researchers can make a good comparison. In addition to flexural and tensile strength tests, microstructural analysis will also be performed. This data is important for future stations on the Moon and Mars. If good parts could be printed there, it would greatly simplify the logistics process from the ground.

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