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ESA reports first laser metal 3D printing in space

06 Jun 2024

“One small s-curve deposited in steel on the ISS, one giant leap for in-orbit manufacturing.”

In an echo of Neil Armstrong’s famous declaration as he stepped onto the moon in July 1969, the European Space Agency this week described the first instance of laser metal 3D printing in space as “one small s-curve deposited in liquefied stainless steel, a giant leap forward for in-orbit manufacturing”.

The additive manufacturing breakthrough was achieved on the International Space Station, which took place on May 30th, aboard ESA’s Columbus laboratory module. “This S-curve is a test line, successfully concluding the commissioning of our Metal 3D Printer,” explained ESA technical officer Rob Postema.

Postema said, “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 efforts of the industrial team led by Airbus Defence and Space SAS, the CADMOS User Support Centre, in France, and our own ESA team.”

Sébastien Girault, from consortium leader Airbus said, “We’re happy to have performed the 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 – also co-funding the project – under contract to ESA’s Directorate of Human and Robotic Exploration.

The system reached the ISS in January, 2024. ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen installed the 180 kg payload in the Columbus module.

Laser-heated

The Metal 3D Printer’s design is based on stainless-steel wire being fed into the printing area, which is heated by a high-power laser. As the wire dips into the melt pool, the wire tip melts adding metal to the print.

The print process is managed entirely from the ground. All the onboard crew has to do is open a nitrogen and venting valve before the printing starts. For safety reasons the printer operates within a fully sealed box, preventing excess heat or fumes from escaping.

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 in normal gravity.

ESA materials engineer Advenit Makaya from Agency’s Directorate of Technology, Engineering and Quality, has advised the project: “Two of these printed parts will be analyzed 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,” he said.

One of ESA’s goals for future development is to create a circular space economy and recycle materials in orbit to allow for a better use of resource, such as repurposing bits from old satellites into new tools or structures. An operational version of this metal 3D printer would eliminate the need to send a tool up with a rocket and allow the astronauts to print the needed parts in orbit.

CHROMA TECHNOLOGY CORP.Iridian Spectral TechnologiesABTechAlluxaLASEROPTIK GmbHTRIOPTICS GmbHUniverse Kogaku America Inc.
© 2024 SPIE Europe
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