First metal 3D printer on space station drips molten steel

The first metal 3D printer aboard the International Space Station successfully pumped out a molten “S-curve” last Thursday, in what the European Space Agency (ESA) is calling a “giant leap for in-orbit manufacturing.”

By combining a powerful laser and stainless steel wire, an Airbus-built metal 3D printer has placed its first liquid test lines in the ESAs Columbus research module.

For “safety reasons,” the machine operated in a “completely sealed box, preventing excess heat or fumes from escaping.” the agency wrote, adding that the laser on the printer is “about a million times more powerful than a standard laser pointer.” Microgravity researchers at the French space agency CNES oversaw the project remotely from facilities in Toulouse, together with Airbus and the ESA.

“The quality is as good as we could have dreamed,” Sébastien Girault, Airbus chief systems engineer for the project, said in a statement. ESA technical officer Rob Postema said the success of the project makes the agency “ready to print full parts in the near future.”

The ESA plans to continue testing the printer. “Four shapes have been chosen for subsequent full-scale 3D printing, which will later be returned to Earth to be compared with reference prints made on the ground under normal gravity,” the agency said. Two of the resulting printed parts will go to ESA's main research center in Noordwijk, Netherlands, while the remaining two will go to the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany and the Technical University of Denmark. The ESA and Boeing did not immediately respond to PopSci's requests for more information about the subsequent printing efforts.

In January, after the printer was launched on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as part of an ISS resupply mission, the ESA declared that the ability to build “more complex metal structures in space” would be a “key asset for securing the exploration of the Moon and Mars.”

NASA expressed a similar sentiment about additive manufacturing in 2014, when his plastic 3D printer extruded a printhead faceplate, the first 3D printed object in space. That printer continued to produce a ratchet wrench and a sample container. The US agency did that argued that allowing astronauts to print spare parts and tools on demand will help address the logistical challenges inherent in deep space exploration, where resupply missions would be less feasible than those intended for in-orbit earth rotating ISS.

In addition to enabling exploration, the ESA also hinted at the potential impact of 3D printing on space junk, as printing parts in space could reduce the need for resupply missions and even allow astronauts to pick up some of the junk that people left up there to save. “One of ESA's goals for future development is to create a circular space economy and recycle materials in orbit to enable better use of resources, such as reusing pieces of old satellites in new instruments or structures,” the agency said.

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