ESA is set to send a 3D printer up to the International Space Station (ISS) for a preliminary round of orbital testing in the first half of next year. The Portable On-Board Printer (POP3D), was designed and manufactured in Italy and will be one of the focuses of ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti's Futura mission. The results of the study will be instrumental in informing us on the potential uses of 3D printing in microgravity.

The printer has been purpose-built to suit the limitations of life aboard the ISS. It requires only a small amount of power and very little room, with the little cube measuring only 25 cm sq (9.5 sq in). Furthermore, whilst POP3D utilizes a heat-based process to print components and tools, its use does not effect the station's fragile environment, using only safe, biodegradable plastics in the printing process.

Whilst the ISS has an abundance of spares for basically every tool and component imaginable, having a 3D printer aboard the station to replace damaged apparatus is an obvious benefit of the device. The loss of a vital piece of equipment could greatly impair the progress of research taking place on the ISS, and this in turn represents a significant financial loss to the space agencies that administer the station, with US$3-4 billion spent yearly by NASA alone.

To this end, agencies such as the ESA are embracing the potential benefits of 3D printing across a variety of areas. NASA and partner Aerojet Rocketdyne are in the process of heat testing 3D-printed rocket parts, with initial results proving that 3D-printed copper parts can withstand the punishing temperatures and pressures experienced by a launch vehicle’s combustion engines during lift-off.

A 3D-printed deployment mechanism for satellite-based solar panels (Photo: ESA–A. Le Floc'h)

"The successful hot fire test of subscale engine components provides confidence in the additive manufacturing process and paves the way for full scale development," states NASA lead engineer Tyler Hickman. 3D-printed engine elements such as these could significantly lower the expense and lead times of launch vehicle fabrication.

"It is very promising for reducing costs particularly for complex structures and reducing lead time significantly," says Steffen Beyer, Head of Materials and Process Technology at Airbus Defence and Space. "In the case of a complex injector of a rocket engine, we are able to take the total number of parts needed down from around 250 down to one or two; that represents a revolution in design and manufacturing."

This is only one example of the potential uses of 3D printing in the space exploration sphere, with further concepts ranging from reducing satellite weight to 3D-printing a moonbase that would afford its occupants protection from the hazardous conditions prevailing outside Earth's protective atmosphere.

It is estimated that the POP3D printer will be able to print a plastic component in about half an hour. Once the experiment has run its course, the objects printed aboard the ISS will be returned to Earth for detailed analysis and compared with objects printed using identical processes here on Earth. This will allow scientists to determine what effects, if any, microgravity has on the 3D printing process.

Source: ESA

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