The International Space Station (ISS) will host an innovative 3D printer of metal parts of European origin, as announced by the European Space Agency (ESA) through its official X account.
Airbus Defense and Space has developed this device, which was launched last week as part of the Cygnus NG-20 resupply mission. Rob Postema, the technical manager of the European Space Agency, explained that this new tool on the ISS will be dedicated to printing “metal parts” . Weighing approximately 180kg, the printer represents a world first and comes at a time of growing interest in space manufacturing.
How does the ISS 3D printer work?
The 3D printer is expected to use a type of stainless steel commonly used in medical implants and water treatment due to its corrosion resistance . The material will be supplied in the form of a wire and will subsequently be heated with a laser, approximately one million times more powerful than a standard laser.
As the wire is subjected to the intense heat of the laser, it will melt, adding metal to the print and allowing the construction of objects relevant to space missions on the International Space Station (ISS).
The role of the 3D printer of metal parts in space
Until now, 3D printers used in space focused on polymers, using plastic material that was heated and deposited to create desired objects. However, the European Space Agency (ESA) highlights that 3D printing with metal represents a greater challenge, as it involves working at much higher temperatures and melting the metal using a laser.
In this regard, ESA has assured that this device does not pose a risk to the safety of the crew or the space station. Although they recognize that maintenance options are limited, success in this project could raise the potential of 3D printing in space to unprecedented levels, taking advantage of the strength, conductivity and rigidity of metal.
Likewise, the European Space Agency (ESA) has explained that once the 3D printer of metal parts reaches the International Space Station (ISS), European astronaut Andreas Mogensen will be responsible for its installation in the Columbus module, the scientific laboratory largest on the station and a notable contribution from ESA. Upon placement, the printer will be operated and monitored remotely from Earth .
To evaluate the performance of the device in the space environment, four forms of testing, called “reference prints”, have been selected. These prints, smaller than a soda can and weighing less than 250 grams, will provide information on how the space environment affects the metal printing process. According to estimates, the time required to print each form will be 2 to 4 weeks, as the scheduled printing time is limited to four hours per day due to noise regulations on the ISS, as the device’s fans and motor generate a considerable level of noise.
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