Molten Metal 3D Printer: A Space First Heading to the ISS This Week

The Apollo 13 moon mission was fraught with difficulties. After an explosion disrupted part of the spacecraft, the astronauts were set on a gruelling journey back home. In order to maintain breathable air, the team had to improvise a converter for incompatible CO2 scrubbers using duct tape, space suit components, and pages from a mission manual.

While they were unable to reach the moon, Apollo 13 served as an ultimate lesson in resourcefulness. The mission also stood as a harsh reminder of the isolation experienced by astronauts once their spacecraft takes off. Despite the lack of resources in space, the next generation of space hackers are presented with innovative tools. Some years ago, the first 3D printer capable of creating plastic parts was utilized at the ISS. This week, they are set to receive the inaugural metal 3D printer. This machine is expected to reach the ISS Thursday as part of the Cygnus NG-20 resupply mission.

Constructed by a team led by Airbus, the printer is roughly the size of a washing machine—compact for metal 3D printers yet sizable for space exploration—and operates with high-powered lasers to melt metal alloys exceeding temperatures of 1,200 degrees Celsius (2,192 degrees Fahrenheit). The molten metal slowly forms small, but hopefully useful, objects like spare parts or tools in layers.

The team of astronauts will install this 3D printer in the Columbus Laboratory on the ISS and proceed with four test prints. The objective is to return these objects to Earth to compare their robustness and integrity against those printed under Earth gravity. It is also the hope that this experiment will demonstrate the safety of the process, despite the extreme temperatures and harmful vapors produced.

The metal 3D printer will bring new on-orbit manufacturing capabilities, including the possibility to produce load-bearing structural parts that are more resilient than a plastic equivalent,” Gwenaëlle Aridon, a lead engineer at Airbus said in a press release. “Astronauts will be able to directly manufacture tools such as wrenches or mounting interfaces that could connect several parts together. The flexibility and rapid availability of 3D printing will greatly improve astronauts’ autonomy.”

Taking nearly two days per print job, the machine is hardly a speed demon, and the printed objects will be rough around the edges. Following the first demonstration of partial-gravity 3D printing on the ISS, the development of technologies suitable for orbital manufacturing has been slow. But as the ISS nears the end of its life and private space station and other infrastructure projects ramp up, the technology could find more uses.

The need to manufacture items on-demand will only grow the further we travel from home and the longer we stay there. The ISS is relatively nearby—a mere 200 miles overhead—but astronauts exploring and building a more permanent presence on the moon or Mars will need to repair and replace anything that breaks on their mission.

Ambitiously, and even further out, metal 3D printing could contribute to ESA’s vision of a “circular space economy,” in which material from old satellites, spent rocket stages, and other infrastructure is recycled into new structures, tools, and parts as needed.

Duct tape will no doubt always have a place in every space hacker’s box of tools—but a few 3D printers to whip up plastic and metal parts on the fly certainly won’t hurt the cause.

Image Credit: NASA

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