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First metal 3D printing performed on ISS
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First metal 3D printing performed on ISS
by Erica Marchand
Paris, France (SPX) Jun 04, 2024

The first metal 3D printing aboard the International Space Station took place last Thursday in ESA's Columbus laboratory module. This achievement marks a significant step forward for in-orbit manufacturing.

"This S-curve is a test line, successfully concluding the commissioning of our Metal 3D Printer," explains ESA technical officer Rob Postema.

"The success of this first print, along with other reference lines, leaves us ready to print full parts in the near future. We've reached this point thanks to the hard efforts of the industrial team led by Airbus Defence and Space SAS, the CADMOS User Support Centre in France, from which print operations are overseen from the ground, as well as our own ESA team."

Sebastien Girault, part of the team at consortium leader Airbus, adds: "We're very happy to have performed the very first metal 3D printing aboard the ISS - the quality is as good as we could dream!"

The Metal 3D Printer technology demonstrator was developed by an industrial team led by Airbus, which also co-funded the project, under contract to ESA's Directorate of Human and Robotic Exploration.

The equipment reached the ISS in January. ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen installed the approximately 180-kg payload in the European Draw Rack Mark II within the Columbus module.

The Metal 3D Printer uses stainless-steel wire fed into the printing area, heated by a high-power laser. As the wire dips into the melt pool, the end of the wire melts, adding metal to the print.

The print process is overseen from the ground. The onboard crew only needs to open a nitrogen and venting valve before printing starts. For safety, the printer operates within a fully sealed box to prevent excess heat or fumes from escaping.

Four shapes have been chosen for subsequent full-scale 3D printing, which will later be returned to Earth for comparison with reference prints made on the ground in normal gravity.

ESA materials engineer Advenit Makaya from ESA's Directorate of Technology, Engineering, and Quality has advised the project: "Two of these printed parts will be analysed in the Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory at ESTEC in the Netherlands, to help us understand whether prolonged microgravity has an effect on the printing of metallic materials. The other two will go to the European Astronaut Centre and the Technical University of Denmark, DTU."

ESA aims to create a circular space economy, recycling materials in orbit to allow better use of resources, such as repurposing bits from old satellites into new tools or structures. An operational version of this metal 3D printer could eliminate the need to send tools up with a rocket, allowing astronauts to print needed parts in orbit.

Related Links
Airbus Defence and Space SAS
Space Technology News - Applications and Research

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