In the Spotlight

3D printing in Space? Now a reality!

In the Spotlight

3D printing in Space? Now a reality!

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    On December 6th 2015, the fifth of eleven Cygnus resupply vessels for the International Space Station (ISS) was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The vessel comprises 2 components : the Service Module and the Pressurized Cargo Module (PCM), which was developed by Thales Alenia Space on behalf of Orbital ATK (NYSE: OA). This PCM, carrying crew supplies, space parts, science experiment for the ISS, also includes a special guest: the Portable on Board Printer 3D.

    VIDEO: Thales Alenia space's expertise in Cygnus program

    A portable 3D printer for Space: when science-fiction becomes reality!

    The Portable on Board Printer 3D is a joint project between Altran Italia (prime contractor), Thales Alenia Space and the Italian Institute of Technology. Using the additive manufacturing process, it is dedicated to test the 3D printing technology under zero gravity conditions. to make spare parts and tools in situ, thus considerably reducing the cost of space missions.

    Testing 3D printing onboard the ISS: a European first!

    The trial in space involves a cube-shaped 3D printer measuring 25 cm on each side and weighing 5.5 kg. It will produce a small object using a polymer filament (PLA – polylactic acid), which is basically a biodegradable plastic. This object will then be sent back to Earth for comparison with a comparable object made on the ground.

    Thales Alenia Space’s contribution to the Portable on Board Printer 3D:

    Thales Alenia Space provided the specifications for integration of the 3D printer in the International Space Station. It also contributed to the definition of the operating scenario and the resources required for printer operation, as well as defining the procedure for the installation and execution of the experiment by the astronaut. Thales Alenia Space drew up the Quality Assurance plan for the Italian space agency (ASI) and NASA, and performed analyses to identify potential contaminants from operation of the printer that could be toxic for the Station's environment.

    Additive manufacturing in space: multiple benefits in view

    A spaceborne 3D printer could radically change space exploration. Today, any ISS furnishings, parts or tools have to be rocketed into space in final form, and that's expensive and complicated. Future deep space exploration missions, like those to the planet Mars, will not be able to receive supplies from Earth. A 3D printer in orbit could be the first step towards the on-site production of tools and spare parts on space stations performing long missions, or even the production of entire space structures in orbit, greatly reducing the volume of supplies to be boosted into space and the number of resupply missions.

    VIDEO: All about the Portable on Board Printer 3D

    Video copyrights:
    Cygnus: © Thales Alenia Space/Master Image Programmes
    The Portable on Board Printer 3D: © altran