NASA’s Latest Space Mission: Sending a Surgical Robot and 3D Metal Printer to the International Space Station


By NASA January 21, 2024

Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus space freighter is positioned away from the International Space Station in the grips of the Canadarm2 robotic arm prior to its release ending a four-month stay attached to the orbiting lab’s Unity module. Credit: NASA

Scientific investigations on the ISS’s latest resupply mission include advancements in 3D metal printing, semiconductor manufacturing, reentry thermal protection, robotic surgery, and cartilage tissue regeneration. These studies aim to enhance space mission sustainability and have significant implications for Earth-based technologies and health care.

Tests of a 3D metal printer, semiconductor manufacturing, and thermal protection systems for reentry to Earth’s atmosphere are among the scientific investigations that NASA and international partners are launching to the International Space Station on Northrop Grumman’s 20th commercial resupply services mission. The company’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida by late January.

Read more about some of the research making the journey to the orbiting laboratory:

Samples produced by the Metal 3D Printer prior to launch to the space station. Credit: ESA

An investigation from ESA (European Space Agency), Metal 3D Printer tests additive manufacturing or 3D printing of small metal parts in microgravity.

“This investigation provides us with an initial understanding of how such a printer behaves in space,” said Rob Postema of ESA. “A 3D printer can create many shapes, and we plan to print specimens, first to understand how printing in space may differ from printing on Earth and second to see what types of shapes we can print with this technology. In addition, this activity helps show how crew members can work safely and efficiently with printing metal parts in space.”

Results could potentially enhance our understanding of the workings, capabilities, and procedures of 3D printing of metals in a space environment, as well as the integrity, durability, and traits of the printed components. In the case of extended human missions in future, resupply could be an issue. The crew could employ 3D printing to manufacture parts needed for maintenance of equipment on future extended spaceflights and on the Moon or Mars, eliminating the need to carry extra parts or anticipating all the tools or objects that may be required, thereby conserving both time and resources during launch.

Progress in metal 3D printing technology could also have implications for potential applications on Earth, such as fabricating engines for the automotive, aviation, and marine sectors and constructing shelters following natural calamities.

The study was developed by a group headed by Airbus Defence and Space SAS, contracted by the ESA.

The MSTIC investigation by Redwire includes the gas supply modules and the production module. Credit: Redwire

Manufacturing of Semiconductors and Thin-Film Integrated Coatings (MSTIC) investigates the influence of microgravity on thin films used in a diversity of applications.

Alex Hayes of Redwire Space, the company behind the technology, commented on the potential to create films with superior surface structures and wide range of applications, from energy collecting to cutting-edge sensor technologies. “This signifies a substantial breakthrough in space manufacturing. It could potentially herald a new epoch of technology evolution with far-reaching effects on both space exploration and terrestrial applications,” he stated.

This novel technology could replace the multitude of machinery and processes presently being used to manufacture a wide variety of semiconductors. This could ultimately contribute to the creation of more resourceful and high-performance electrical devices.

Creating semiconductor devices in microgravity might also enhance their quality and decrease the materials, equipment, and manual labor demanded. For future long-duration missions, this technology could offer the ability to create components and devices in space, reducing the dependency on resupply missions from Earth. The technology also has applications in energy-harvesting devices that provide power here on Earth.

“While this initial pilot program is designed to compare thin films produced on Earth and in space, the ultimate goal is to expand to producing a diverse range of production areas within the semiconductor field,” Hayes said.

An artist’s rendering of one of the KREPE-2 capsules during re-entry. Credit: A. Martin, P. Rodgers, L. Young, J. Adams, University of Kentucky

Scientists who conduct research on the space station often return their experiments to Earth for additional analysis and study. But the conditions that spacecraft experience during atmospheric reentry, including extreme heat, can have unintended effects on their contents. Thermal protection systems used to shield spacecraft and their contents are based on numerical models that often lack validation from actual flight, which can lead to significant overestimates in the size of system needed and take up valuable space and mass. Kentucky Re-entry Probe Experiment-2 (KREPE-2), part of an effort to improve thermal protection system technology, uses three capsules outfitted with different heat shield materials and a variety of sensors to obtain data on actual reentry conditions.

“Building on the success of KREPE-1, we have improved the sensors to gather more measurements and improved the communication system to transmit more data,” said principal investigator Alexandre Martin at the University of Kentucky. “We have the opportunity to test several heat shields provided by NASA that have never been tested before, and another manufactured entirely at the University of Kentucky, also a first.”

The capsules can be outfitted for other atmospheric re-entry experiments, supporting improvements in heat shielding for applications on Earth, such as protecting people and structures from wildfires.

The surgical robot during testing on the ground before launch. Credit: Virtual Incision Corporation

Robotic Surgery Tech Demo tests the performance of a small robot that can be remotely controlled from Earth to perform surgical procedures. Researchers plan to compare procedures in microgravity and on Earth to evaluate the effects of microgravity and time delays between space and ground.

The robot uses two “hands” to grasp and cut simulated surgical tissue and provide tension that is used to determine where and how to cut, according to Shane Farritor, chief technology officer at Virtual Incision Corporation, developer of the investigation with the University of Nebraska.

Undertaking more extended space missions enhances the possibility that crew members may require surgical operations, ranging from basic stitches to an immediate appendectomy. The findings from this research could contribute to the creation of robotic systems designed to perform these procedures. Moreover, from 2001 to 2019, there was nearly a one-third reduction in the availability of a surgeon in the country’s rural regions. The ability to control the robot remotely and its miniaturization may assist in making surgical services universally and continuously accessible.

NASA has been funding research on miniature robots for over 15 years. In 2006, remotely operated robots carried out procedures on the underwater NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) 9 mission. In 2014, a mini surgical robot performed simulated surgical activities on the Zero-G parabolic airplane.

The Janus Base Nano-matrix supports and attaches cartilage cells, aiding the creation of the cartilage tissue matrix. Credit: University of Connecticut

The Compartment Cartilage Tissue Construct showcases two technologies, the Janus Base Nano-Matrix (JBNm) and the Janus Base Nanopiece (JBNp). JBNm is a material that can be injected and offers a scaffold for the formation of cartilage in microgravity, which could be utilized as a model for analyzing cartilage diseases. JBNp provides a treatment based on RNA to tackle diseases that result in degenerative cartilage.

Cartilage has a limited ability to self-repair and osteoarthritis is a leading cause of disability in older patients on Earth. Microgravity can trigger cartilage degeneration that mimics the progression of aging-related osteoarthritis but happens more quickly, so research in microgravity could lead to faster development of effective therapies. Results from this investigation could advance cartilage regeneration as a treatment for joint damage and diseases on Earth and contribute to development of ways to maintain cartilage health on future missions to the Moon and Mars.

Tests of a 3D metal printer and thermal protection systems for reentry to Earth’s atmosphere are among the scientific investigations that NASA and international partners are launching to the International Space Station on Northrop Grumman’s 20th commercial resupply services mission. The company’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida no earlier than late January. Credit: NASA









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