Shaping the Future: ESA’s In-Space Metal 3D Printer


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By European Space Agency (ESA) February 3, 2024

A groundbreaking European-made metal 3D printer has been launched to the International Space Station, marking the first time metal 3D printing will be performed in orbit. This initiative, which leverages a collaboration between ESA and Airbus, aims to demonstrate the potential of in-space manufacturing. Credit: Airbus Defence and Space SAS

Metal 3D printing will soon take place in orbit for the first time. A pioneering European-made metal 3D printer is on its way to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Cygnus NG-20 resupply mission which launched this week.

“This new 3D printer printing metal parts represents a world first, at a time of growing interest in in-space manufacturing,” explains ESA technical officer Rob Postema. “Polymer-based 3D printers have already been launched to, and used aboard the ISS, using plastic material that is heated at the printer’s head, then deposited to build up the desired object, one layer at a time.

“Metal 3D printing represents a greater technical challenge, involving much higher temperatures and metal being melted using a laser. With this, the safety of the crew and the Station itself has 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.”

The first metal 3D printer to operate aboard the International Space Station seen during ground testing, producing an ESA-design sample part. Its development led by ESA, this Metal 3D Printer aims to prove that metal 3D printing can be performed in weightless conditions, opening the way to a future in-space manufacturing capability where astronauts far from Earth can produce whatever tools or spare parts they need. Credit: Airbus Defence and Space SAS

The Cygnus NG-20 spacecraft, carrying the Metal 3D Printer along with 8,200 pounds of scientific investigations and cargo, docked to the International Space Station on February 1. Once is unpacked, ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen will prepare and install the approximately 180 kg Metal 3D printer in the European Draw Rack Mark II in ESA’s Columbus module. After installation, the printer will be controlled and monitored from Earth, so the printing can take place without Andreas’s oversight.

The Metal 3D Printer technology demonstrator has been developed by an industrial team led by Airbus Defence and Space SAS – also co-funding the project – under contract to ESA’s Directorate of Human and Robotic Exploration.

“This in-orbit demonstration is the result of close collaboration between ESA and Airbus’ small, dynamic team of engineers,” comments Patrick Crescence, project manager at Airbus. “But this is not just a step into the future; it’s a leap for innovation in space exploration. It paves the way for manufacturing more complex metallic structures in space. That is a key asset for securing exploration of Moon and Mars.”

Credit: Airbus

The printer will be printing using a type of stainless steel commonly used in medical implants and water treatment due to its good resistance to corrosion.

The stainless-steel wire is fed into the printing area, which is heated by a high-power laser, about a million times time more powerful than your average laser pointer. As the wire dips into the melt pool, the end of the wire melts, and metal is then added to the print.

Advenit Makaya, an ESA materials engineer from the Directorate of Technology, Engineering, and Quality, supplied technical support for the project. He explains that the melt pool during the printing process is minuscule, roughly a millimeter across, enabling the surface tension of the liquid metal to secure it in zero gravity. The printer operates inside a fully sealed enclosure due to the stainless steel’s high melting point of about 1400 °C. This box keeps any excess heat or fumes from reaching the Space Station crew. Before printing starts, the printer’s internal oxygen environment is vented into space and replaced with nitrogen. Otherwise, the hot stainless steel would oxidize if it got exposed to oxygen.

The Metal 3D printer signifies the first instance of a 3D printer printing in metal on the International Space Station. Airbus Defense and Space SAS, commissioned by ESA, has produced the 3D printer. It employs a stainless-steel wire that is melted by a high-powered laser to create four prints. Each print takes between two and four weeks to complete, making this a historic event. The printer launched on NG-20 on January 30, 2024.

The Metal 3D printer performance will be tested using four interesting shapes. These initial objects will be compared with identical shapes, known as reference prints, produced on the ground. This comparison will determine how the printing process is influenced by the space environment. Each of the four prints is smaller than a soda can, weighs less than 250g, and takes two to four weeks to be made. Due to the Space Station’s noise regulations, the printer can only operate for four hours each day. This is because the printer’s fans and motor are relatively loud.

Upon a shape’s completion, Andreas will remove it from the printer and pack it to be transported back to Earth safely. Here, it will undergo processing and analysis to comprehend the differences between printing in space and on Earth in terms of quality and performance.

One of the test prints from a dedicated tool, part of a creative project, will end up at the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) situated in Cologne, Germany. Additionally, a pair will find their way to the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) also known as the technological core of ESA. Here, eager anticipation from the team at Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory is seen as they eagerly wait to observe the 3D printed material for macro and micro-level analysis. The final product is destined for the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), which has proposed its design and has planned its thermal property examination in relation to aiding future antenna alignment.

“Our mission in this technology demonstration project is to validate the prowess of metal 3D printing in space,” further explains Rob. “Our journey thus far has already been an enlightening one and we hope to gain more valuable knowledge on the prospect of in-space manufacturing and assembly.”

A part of ESA’s roadmap for future advancements involves creating a full-circle space economy that promotes the reuse of materials. The idea is to innovate and use defunct satellite parts by transforming them into useful tools or structures. This is where the capabilities of a 3D printer would shine, as it would save the time and resources spent on sending a tool up with a rocket delivering the possibility for astronauts to print the pieces they require whilst up in orbit.

Adding to the conversation, Tommaso Ghidini who is currently serving as the Head of the Mechanical Department at ESA, shares, “The promise of metal 3D printing in space is undeniable and can significantly add to not only future exploration activities, but also provide a good contribution for promoting sustainable space activities. This includes in-situ manufacturing and repair, or even recycling of large space structures, which can be used for various applications. From in-orbit large infrastructure manufacturing and assembly to establishing long-term human settlements on planets, these fields are of specific interest in ESA’s forthcoming technology cross-cutting initiatives.”

Thomas Rohr, overseeing ESA’s Materials and Processes Section, adds: “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.”

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