Scientists achieve first metal 3D printing on International Space Station

Credit: ESA/Airbus.

In a groundbreaking achievement, the first metal 3D printing has been successfully completed on the International Space Station (ISS).

This historic event took place last Thursday in the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Columbus laboratory module.

“This S-curve is a test line, successfully concluding the commissioning of our Metal 3D Printer,” explained ESA technical officer Rob Postema.

“The success of this first print, along with other reference lines, leaves us ready to print full parts in the near future.

We’ve reached this point thanks to the hard efforts of the industrial team led by Airbus Defense and Space SAS, the CADMOS User Support Center in France, from which print operations are overseen from the ground, as well as our own ESA team.”

Sébastien Girault, part of the team at consortium leader Airbus, added, “We’re very happy to have performed the very first metal 3D printing aboard the ISS—the quality is as good as we could dream.”

The Metal 3D Printer was developed by an industrial team led by Airbus under a contract with ESA’s Directorate of Human and Robotic Exploration.

The printer, which arrived at the ISS in January, was installed by ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen. It weighs about 180 kg and is housed in the European Drawer Rack Mark II in the Columbus module.

The printer uses a stainless-steel wire fed into a printing area heated by a high-power laser. This laser is about a million times more powerful than a standard laser pointer. As the wire enters the melt pool, it melts and adds metal to the print.

The entire printing process is overseen from the ground, with the onboard crew only needing to open a nitrogen and venting valve before printing begins. For safety, the printer operates within a fully sealed box to prevent excess heat or fumes from escaping.

Four shapes have been chosen for subsequent full-scale 3D printing. These printed parts will later be returned to Earth for comparison with reference prints made on the ground under normal gravity conditions.

ESA materials engineer Advenit Makaya, who has advised the project, explained, “Two of these printed parts will be analyzed in the Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory at ESTEC in the Netherlands, to help us understand whether prolonged microgravity has an effect on the printing of metallic materials.

The other two will go to the European Astronaut Center and the Technical University of Denmark, DTU.”

One of ESA’s future goals is to develop a circular space economy, where materials can be recycled in orbit. This could include repurposing parts from old satellites into new tools or structures.

An operational version of the metal 3D printer would eliminate the need to send tools from Earth, allowing astronauts to print needed parts directly in space. This innovation could greatly enhance resource efficiency and support long-term space missions.