World’s First Space-Bound Metal 3D Printer Sent to ISS by ESA


The first metal 3D printer designed for space usage is on its journey to the International Space Station (ISS). The printer will be situated in the ESA’s Columbus module, with its primary purpose being to affirm the feasibility of this technology in space. The goal is to prepare for potential implementation on Mars and the Moon.

Developed under the aegis of Airbus, the printer, with a weight of 180 kilograms, is to function to mend or create tools, structural parts, and mounting interfaces. The printer boasts the capability to print parts spanning nine centimetres in height and five centimetres in width, taking around 40 hours to complete the process.

The printer, upon its installation at the ISS, will produce four samples made of metal. These samples will be dispatched back to our planet for a detailed analysis. A similar process will be carried out with an engineering model of the printer based on the ground, producing the same set of samples.

Sébastien Girault, an engineer who works on the metal 3D-printer system at Airbus, clarified the purpose of the experiment, “The objective is to assess the implications of microgravity condition. To this end, ESA in collaboration with the Danish Technical University plans to conduct tests measuring mechanical strength and bending, and to analyse the microstructure of the components developed in space. These results will be held against those obtained using the earth-based samples,” explained Girault.

In-space manufacturing has emerged as the new frontier both for research and for improved space exploration capabilities.

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When it comes to R&D, space’s properties — its microgravity, near-vacuum state, and higher levels of radiation — offer a unique testbed for sectors ranging from semiconductors to pharmaceuticals.

Simultaneously, the possibility of fabricating or restoring components in space decreases dependence on resources delivered from Earth. This is crucial for prolonged space exploration and life support.

Gwenaëlle Aridon, Lead Engineer of Space Assembly at Airbus, stated that enhancing the sophistication and automation of additive manufacturing in space could revolutionize life off Earth.

Ardion envisioned the numerous potential applications, like using a metal printer to convert recycled materials or regolith (lunar dust), in order to construct a lunar base.

Since 2014, 3D printing of plastic materials on the ISS has been happening. However, printing metal in space introduces new and distinct problems.

The first consideration is size. The printer had to be miniaturised to the size of a washing machine, whereas earth-bound printers require at least 10 square meters, as mentioned by Girault.

Another significant hurdle is safety. A metallic 3D printer not only operates at elevated temperatures, but it also necessitates a strong laser to fuse the metal.

“The stainless steel’s melting point is approximately 1400°C, so the printer functions within a completely encapsulated box, thereby stopping surplus heat or fumes from impacting the crew of the Space Station,” stated Advenit Makaya, a materials engineer at ESA.

“And prior to initiating the printing process, the printer’s internal oxygen ambiance must be emptied to space, supplanted by nitrogen — the hot stainless steel would oxidise if exposed to oxygen.”

If the 3D printer yields the desired results, the technology could prove critical to Mars and lunar exploration, while contributing to ESA’s vision for a circular space economy.

“If this technology demonstrator proves to be successful, it opens the path to printing metal parts in space, in case a metal parts breaks down and needs to be replaced, or when a dedicated tool is needed which is not yet available,” Rob Postema, ESA technical officer, told TNW. 

“In both cases, a re-supply mission is not needed. Next steps in the development and maturity of printing metal in space could include printing larger parts and using different metals.”

Update (08:10AM CET, February 02, 2024): The article has been updated to include the comment by Rob Postema.

Ioanna is a writer at TNW. She covers the full spectrum of the European tech ecosystem, with a particular interest in startups, sustainabili(show all)

Ioanna is a writer at TNW. She covers the full spectrum of the European tech ecosystem, with a particular interest in startups, sustainability, green tech, AI, and EU policy. With a background in the humanities, she has a soft spot for social impact-enabling technologies.

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