The Cygnus NG-20 resupply mission, which carries a 180 kg metal 3D printer, was recently launched towards the International Space Station (ISS). Astronaut Andreas Mogensen will be responsible for installing the device which will be controlled and monitored from Earth. Unlike the polymer 3D printers already used on the ISS, this new machine uses a specific, corrosion-resistant stainless steel commonly used for water treatment and medical implants.
Printing metal tools in space
Astronauts will be able to print all kinds of tools like wrenches, pliers or mounting brackets, directly in space. These tools can be designed for specific needs encountered during missions. And unlike plastics, metals offer superior strength and durability, making them well suited for manufacturing structural parts and components that must support significant loads.
The printing process involves melting a stainless steel wire at around 1,400°C by an extremely powerful laser, in a carefully controlled environment (and even more so on the ISS). Before operation, the printer must exhaust the oxygen and replace it with nitrogen to avoid oxidation of the molten metal. Rob Postema, ESA technical officer, obviously places emphasis on the safety of the crew and the station, given the high temperatures and the limited maintenance possibilities in orbit.
Installing this printer in the Columbus module of the ISS already poses serious technical challenges. Sébastien Girault, systems engineer at Airbus, explains that miniaturization was essential: the printer had to be reduced to the size of a washing machine to fit in the ISS laboratory. Managing gravity, safety against smoke emissions and extreme heat are all challenges to overcome.
Gwenaëlle Aridon, principal engineer at Airbus Space Assembly, discusses the significant advantages of this technology. It will allow astronauts to manufacture tools and structural parts on site, thereby improving their autonomy and reducing dependence on resupply missions. Four test prints are planned, the results of which will be compared with those obtained on Earth to assess the effects of microgravity.
Beyond the ISS, the application of metal 3D printing could extend to the construction of lunar bases, where recycled or transformed materials from lunar regolith will be used. This technology paves the way for a lasting human presence on the Moon and, potentially, on Mars. “ Increasing the level of maturity and automation of additive manufacturing in space could be a game-changer for supporting life beyond Earth », underlines Gwenaëlle Aridon.
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