EU reveals ambitious project to build and print objects in space

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The European aerospace giant Airbus has commenced the study phase of a factory for assembling an antenna and a satellite in earth’s orbit. Consisting of two robotic arms, a demonstrator of this concept is expected to be functional by as early as 2025. An industrial team is also working on developing a 3D printer for the International Space Station.

According to Christophe Figus, who is the head of advanced projects and robotics, the two-year study consists of defining the specifications of the equipment that are to be assembled in the factory. “It should be located on the Bartolomeo platform which is external to the International Space Station (ISS) space station,” Figus said.

He added that the robotic arms are already undergoing tests in vacuum and different configurations at Airbus facilities across Europe. “The antenna to be assembled in space has been defined."

The two objects are to be of very high accuracy with a tolerance between 0.1 mm to 0.5 mm.

He said that if the European Commission, that selected Airbus to study spacecraft manufacturing in space as a part of the Horizon 2020 programme, gives a go ahead, the demonstrator phase will start in 2022-2023, with a flight expected between 2025 and 2026.

Figus said that one of the key advantages of a space factory is that there are less limitations on the volume of the components to be manufactured or assembled.

“If you want to send parts from the Earth, there is a complex and expensive launcher deployment mechanism for things that are above five metres. With space factories, we can think big and take advantage of space and volume,” he added.

First 3D metal printer in space

In parallel, an industrial team led by Airbus, under contract by the European Space Agency (ESA), is also developing a metal 3D printer that is expected to be launched on the ISS in the second half of next year. Called Metal 3D, it will be the world’s first to print metal parts in orbit.

Rob Postema of ESA’s Human and Robotic Exploration Programmes told RFI that the printer, which has dimensions of approximately 40x75x90 cm, will allow ESA and the industry to get a better understanding of the quality of metal printing and familiarise on how a printer can be operated in space.

The printer, which weighs over 100 kg, is based on the principle of additive manufacturing technology, meaning the machine melts a part of a metal wire and builds the desired shape at the output.

Postema said that the printer will be using stainless steel to print parts which are 5 cm in diameter and 10 cm in length. “Within this volume, we can print different shapes. We also plan to print a small tool which can be used by the crew,” he said.

The printed parts will be brought to Earth to perform strength and bending tests so that the two parameters can be compared with the more traditional way of manufacturing. They will also be investigated through a high resolution microscope to see how the steel gets shaped.

Supplies for Mars missions

Postema remarked that while the printer can print metals other than stainless steel, the feasibility of printing other metals depends on the capability of the laser to melt them.

“The process of melting such metals could involve the release of gases. Given that the safety requirements of astronauts on the space station are very high, you have to look at whether these fumes pose a risk to the astronauts or not and accordingly decide on the type of metal that can be printed.”

He also said that one of the key objectives of the mission is to find out if the printer can be operated automatically without any intervention by astronauts.

“We don’t have a lot of people in space. Also, from the safety point of view, it is not desirable for anyone to accidentally look into the high powered laser as there’s a high chance of getting blinded.”

Postema said that the 3D printer will be invaluable for missions that go further away from the Earth. “If something breaks down on the space station, we can bring spare parts in a couple of months. But if something fails on a mission to Mars and urgent repairs are needed, we cannot wait for the supplies from Earth,” he said.