The First 3D Printer to Use Molten Metal in Space Is Headed to the ISS This Week

The Apollo 13 moon mission didn’t go as planned. After an explosion blew off part of the spacecraft, the astronauts spent a harrowing few days trying to get home. At one point, to keep the air breathable, the crew had to cobble together a converter for ill-fitting CO2 scrubbers with duct tape, space suit parts, and pages from a mission manual.

They didn’t make it to the moon, but Apollo 13 was a master class in hacking. It was also a grim reminder of just how alone astronauts are from the moment their spacecraft lifts off. There are no hardware stores in space (yet). So what fancy new tools will the next generation of space hackers use? The first 3D printer to make plastic parts arrived at the ISS a decade ago. This week, astronauts will take delivery of the first metal 3D printer. The machine should arrive at the ISS Thursday as part of the Cygnus NG-20 resupply mission.

The first 3D printer to print metal in space, pictured here, is headed to the ISS. Image Credit: ESA

Built by an Airbus-led team, the printer is about the size of a washing machine—small for metal 3D printers but big for space exploration—and uses high-powered lasers to liquefy metal alloys at temperatures of over 1,200 degrees Celsius (2,192 degrees Fahrenheit). Molten metal is deposited in layers to steadily build small (but hopefully useful) objects, like spare parts or tools.

Astronauts will install the 3D printer in the Columbus Laboratory on the ISS, where the team will conduct four test prints. They then plan to bring these objects home and compare their strength and integrity to prints completed under Earth gravity. They also hope the experiment demonstrates the process—which involves much higher temperatures than prior 3D printers and harmful fumes—is safe.

“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.”

One of four test prints planned for the ISS mission. Image Credit: Airbus Space and Defence SAS

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

Jason Dorrier
Jason Dorrier
Jason is editorial director of Singularity Hub. He researched and wrote about finance and economics before moving on to science and technology. He's curious about pretty much everything, but especially loves learning about and sharing big ideas and advances in artificial intelligence, computing, robotics, biotech, neuroscience, and space.
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