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Space Milestones: Metal 3D Printer and Surgical Robot on Route to the ISS

Updated: Feb 22

Metal 3D Printer and Surgical Robot on Route to the ISS

First metal 3D printer for space: Making life easier for astronauts

Developed by Airbus for the European Space Agency (ESA), the inaugural metal 3D printer tailored for space applications is poised for testing within the Columbus laboratory module on the International Space Station (ISS). In complement to the plastic 3D printers already operational on the ISS, utilized by astronauts for the replacement or restoration of plastic components, the metal printer is designed to fabricate items and parts necessitating enhanced durability.

Gwenaëlle Aridon, Airbus Space Assembly lead engineer, highlighted the forthcoming benefits, stating, “The metal 3D printer will usher in new on-orbit manufacturing capabilities, including the ability to craft load-bearing structural components more robust than their plastic counterparts. Astronauts will have the capability to directly produce tools such as wrenches or mounting interfaces, fostering the connection of multiple components. The agility and swift availability offered by 3D printing will substantially enhance astronauts’ self-sufficiency.”

The development of the metal printer for space presented numerous challenges that had to be addressed before its installation on the International Space Station (ISS). One major obstacle was the size of the printer, as traditional metal 3D printers on Earth occupy a minimum 10-square-meter [108-sq-ft] laboratory space. To adapt it for the ISS, the team had to reduce the printer's size to that of a washing machine.

Another crucial consideration was ensuring the safety of the ISS and its occupants from the printer's laser and the intense heat it generates. Unlike plastic, with a melting point of around 200 °C (392 °F), the metal alloys compatible with the printing process can have melting points exceeding 1,200 °C or 2,192 °F. Additionally, regardless of the material (plastic or metal), measures were implemented to capture and filter emitted fumes within the machine, preventing contamination of the ISS air supply. The metal printer will be securely housed in a sealed metal box, resembling a safe, to address these safety concerns during its operation in space.

Metal 3D Printer and Surgical Robot on Route to the ISS

"Ensuring safety and preventing contamination are paramount considerations for us, not only in the context of the International Space Station (ISS) but also for future lunar missions," emphasized Aridon.

The utilization of metal 3D printing technology aboard the space station serves as a crucial experiment to assess the impact of printing in microgravity on the quality of materials. This initiative represents a significant stride towards developing the essential technologies for establishing a sustained human presence on the Moon.

Aridon expressed optimism about the potential of advancing the maturity and automation of additive manufacturing in space, stating, "This could be a game-changer for supporting life beyond Earth." Looking beyond the ISS, the possibilities are intriguing. Aridon envisioned scenarios where a metal printer could utilize transformed regolith (moondust) or recycled materials to construct a lunar base, showcasing the promising applications of such technology beyond the confines of Earth's orbit.

The Inaugural Surgical Robot on the ISS: Enhancing Healthcare Accessibility in Space and on Earth.

The 'miniaturized in vivo robotic assistant' (spaceMIRA), destined for the International Space Station (ISS), holds promise in advancing surgical technologies for extended space travel. Beyond its extraterrestrial applications, the technology also carries significant implications for terrestrial healthcare.

Shane Farritor, Professor of Engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Chief Technology Officer for Virtual Incision, a startup he co-founded, highlights the urgent terrestrial demand for improved medical care. He underscores the necessity of addressing patients' needs promptly, especially in underserved regions such as rural areas and remote locations, including military battlefields devoid of immediate medical expertise. Farritor emphasizes that while the allure of space exploration captivates our imagination, the pressing need to enhance healthcare accessibility on Earth remains a paramount concern. #3dprinting #manufacturing #technology #additivemanufacturing

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