ISS is getting its first 3D metal printer to create parts for missions to the Moon and Mars

'It paves the way for manufacturing more complex metallic structures in space... a key asset for securing exploration of the Moon and Mars.'

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Metal 3D printing is coming to space thanks to a new custom metal 3D printer designed by Airbus for the European Space Agency (ESA) that is now aboard the International Space Station. Not to be confused with the polymer-based 3D printers used on the ISS using plastic materials, this is the real deal - "metal being melted using a laser."

The first metal 3D printer for space, image credit: Airbus.

The first metal 3D printer for space, image credit: Airbus.

The ESA's metal 3D printer was sent to the ISS aboard the Cygnus NG-20 resupply mission and could be a game-changer for both the International Space Station and space exploration as we know it. With the ability to 3D print metal, spare parts or even brand new ones could be effectively 'manufactured' in orbit without relying on rockets and resupply missions.

3D metal printing is very different from using plastic, with the stainless steel wire of this custom printer heated up to a 1,400 degrees Celsius melting point compared to 200 degrees Celsius for plastic wire.

"Metal 3D printing represents a greater technical challenge, involving much higher temperatures and metal being melted using a laser," ESA technical officer Rob Postema said. "With this, the safety of the crew and the Station itself have to be ensured - while maintenance possibilities are also very limited. If successful though, the strength, conductivity and rigidity of metal would take the potential of in-space 3D printing to new heights."

One of the first metal 3D specimens to be printed on board the ISS, image credit: ESA

One of the first metal 3D specimens to be printed on board the ISS, image credit: ESA

The printer will operate in a fully sealed box designed to prevent excess heat or fumes from reaching the crew of the ISS. Once fired up, the printer's internal oxygen is vented into space and then replaced by nitrogen, as hot stainless steel would oxidize if exposed to oxygen. As a test, the printer will begin by creating "four interesting shapes," which will take two to four weeks to print. The reason for the lengthy duration comes down to noise regulations on the ISS, with the printer described by the ESA as "relatively noisy."

The first prints will be packaged and sent back to Earth for analysis.

"This technology demonstration, showcasing the processing of metallic materials in microgravity, paves the way for future endeavors to manufacture infrastructure beyond the confines of Earth," Thomas Rohr, ESA Materials and Processes Section, said.

"It's a leap for innovation in space exploration," Patrick Crescence, project manager at Airbus, adds. "It paves the way for manufacturing more complex metallic structures in space. That is a key asset for securing exploration of the Moon and Mars."

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NEWS SOURCES:airbus.com, esa.int

Kosta is a veteran gaming journalist that cut his teeth on well-respected Aussie publications like PC PowerPlay and HYPER back when articles were printed on paper. A lifelong gamer since the 8-bit Nintendo era, it was the CD-ROM-powered 90s that cemented his love for all things games and technology. From point-and-click adventure games to RTS games with full-motion video cut-scenes and FPS titles referred to as Doom clones. Genres he still loves to this day. Kosta is also a musician, releasing dreamy electronic jams under the name Kbit.

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