As if additive manufacturing wasn’t space age enough, the European Space Agency (ESA) has now launched a metal 3D printer to the International Space Station (ISS). Built by Airbus Defense & Space engineers, the system is said to be capable of printing complex metal parts in space, in a way that will support future missions to the Moon and Mars. 

While polymer 3D printers have already been tested onboard the ISS, metal 3D printers represent a different challenge altogether. Not only do they reach much higher temperatures, they often rely on lasers which only work in certain atmospheric conditions. 

Able to get around these issues, Airbus’ unit will initially be deployed to print four prototypes from stainless steel. Smaller than the size of a coke can, these test prints will be compared to samples on Earth, to examine how 3D printing off-world impacts performance. 

If trialed successfully, it’s thought the technology could one day be used to make things from scrapped satellites, in a way that furthers the ESA’s goals of a ‘circular space economy.’

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