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NASA to launch metal 3D printer into space

The investigation from the European Space Agency will test small metal 3D printed parts in microgravity

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NASA and its international partners are launching scientific investigations for metal 3D printing, semiconductor manufacturing, and thermal protection systems for reentry to Earth’s atmosphere 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. The investigation from the ESA (European Space Agency), will test small metal 3D printed parts in microgravity.

NASA and the European Space Agency will launch a metal 3D printer into space to test small metal 3D printed parts in microgravity.
Samples produced by the metal 3D printer before the launch to the space station. Credit: ESA.

“This investigation provides us with an initial understanding of how such a printer behaves in space,” said Rob Postema, Project Engineer for the International Space Station Facility and Technology at 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 improve understanding of the functionality, performance, and operations of metal 3D printing in space, as well as the quality, strength, and characteristics of the printed parts. Resupply presents a challenge for future long-duration human missions, and crew members could use 3D printing to create parts for maintenance of equipment on future long-duration spaceflight and on the Moon or Mars – reducing the need to pack spare parts or to predict every tool or object that might be needed.

Advances in metal 3D printing technology have proven beneficial on Earth too, in applications manufacturing engines for the automotive, aeronautical, and maritime industries, and creating shelters after natural disasters. Nasa’s microgravity metal 3D printing investigation was developed by a team led by Airbus Defence and Space SAS under a contract with the European Space Agency.

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Edward Wakefield

Edward is a freelance writer and additive manufacturing enthusiast looking to make AM more accessible and understandable.

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