ESA sent a 180-kilogram 3D printer to the ISS that can print stainless steel parts –

ESA sent a 180-kilogram 3D printer to the ISS that can print stainless steel parts –
ESA sent a 180-kilogram 3D printer to the ISS that can print stainless steel parts –

On January 20, the European Space Agency (ESA) sent a Cygnus NG-20 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket 3D printercreated and designed by Airbus.

The device, the size of an automatic washing machine, weighs 180 kilograms and will be tested on board the Columbus module. Astronaut Andreas Mogens will be in charge of its installation. ESA hopes the 3D printer will help with future missions to Mars and the Moon. Details are provided by the AeroTime Hub website.

3D printer of metal parts on the ISS

Currently, there are several 3D printers on board the International Space Station using different types of polymer-based plastics that are often used by astronauts. So far though they did not have a tool for making metal objects. They often had to wait several weeks for the delivery of metal spare parts from Earth, and a 3D printer could fundamentally change the situation.

Airbus Lead Engineer for Space Assemblies Gwenaëlle Aridon said: “A 3D printer for printing metal parts will bring new manufacturing capabilities to orbit, including the ability to produce parts that are more durable than their plastic equivalents. Astronauts will be able to make tools such as keys or fastening interfaces that could connect several parts together. The flexibility and rapid availability of 3D printing will significantly improve autonomy.”

Printing metal products in space presents a number of unique challenges, so in the first phase Airbus will primarily collect data on how the new machine performs. For example, the capture of vapors, which must pass through filters and be captured inside the device, is essential so that they do not pollute the air at the station.

One of the aspects that had to be solved is ensuring that the space station is protected from the laser and heat that the 3D printer creates. Although housed in a safety box, the melting point of metal alloys compatible with this process can be much higher than 1400 °C, while for plastic it is around 200 °C.

Specific conditions in space

“Gravity management is also key – that’s why we chose wire-based printing technology. The wire is independent of gravity, unlike a powder-based system that must always fall downwards.” said system engineer Sébastien Girault, who was in charge of developing the printer. The machine will use a certain type of stainless steelwhich is often used for medical implants because it resists corrosion well.

Before the printer starts working, it will have to release oxygen into the space and replace the atmosphere inside the box with nitrogen. Otherwise, the molten metal would oxidize upon contact with oxygen. Individual prints will weigh less than 250 grams and take two to four weeks for the printer. The machine will operate for a maximum of four hours a day, as its fans and engine are quite noisy and there are noise regulations on the ISS.

While one 3D printer flew to the International Space Station, there is an exact replica of it on Earth, which will mirror some of the work done by the machine in space. Four test prints printed by a 3D printer on the ISS will then be sent to Airbus for comparison with the parts produced by the Earth machine.

If the experiment goes well, it could pave the way for astronauts and space agencies to print needed tools or parts without having to send them on resupply missions. 3D printing metal products could also help build a lunar base from recycled materials or repurposed regolith (lunar soil and rock). It may also be useful for missions to Mars.

The article is in Czech

Tags: ESA #180kilogram printer ISS print stainless steel parts VTM .cz


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