esa2As mentioned in an article published earlier in the day about a mobile 3D printer created by three South African students, which they hope will one day be able to 3D print objects on soils foreign to earth, it appears as if  ‘3D Printing’ is becoming a popular phrase within the space industry.

As you have likely heard by now, a company based out of Moffett Field, California, called Made In Space, has recently sent the very first 3D printer into space, as their machine made its way to the International Space Station(ISS) in September. With the help of NASA, this printer will be used for a variety of interesting experiments, hopefully leading to advanced applications for 3D printing from space.

Portable On-Board Printer (POP3D)

Portable On-Board Printer (POP3D)

Today we’ve learned, that soon, the Made in Space 3D printer will not be the only additive manufacturing device at the ISS. The European Space Agency (ESA), has also been researching 3D printing heavily as of late, particularly in their recent report on possibly 3D printing bases on the moon or even Mars, for astronauts to live and work in. Unsurprisingly, the ESA will also be sending their very own 3D printer to the ISS in the first half of 2015.

The machine, called the Portable On-Board Printer (POP3D), which is being developed and constructed in Italy, thanks to funding by the country’s ASI space agency, will make its way to the ISS to coincide with the ESA’s Futura mission with astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti. The printer will require very minimal power, as well as limited crew involvement to function. Using a fused extrusion process, the POP3D is shaped like a cube, measuring 25cm a side, and weighing in at approximately 5.5kg in Earth’s gravity. It prints with biodegradable PLA filament like those used in popular desktop machines such as the MakerBot Replicator.

“Part of the challenge of designing a 3D printer for the station was to ensure its operation does not affect the crew environment,” stated Giorgio Musso of Thales Alenia Space Italy, principal investigator for the project.

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti

The plan is to have the machine print out various objects from the ISS and return those objects to Earth for further inspection and testing by which the Italian Institute of Technology will be involved.

The ESA plans to take charge within the niche where 3D printing and space converge. They look to head up numerous organizations and players within the combined fields, many of whom met at a workshop at the ESA’s technical center in Noordwijk, the Netherlands recently.

“Previously, we have had various efforts mushrooming up in different parts of Europe,” explained Tommaso Ghidini, Head of the Materials Technology Section in ESA. “Now we have a community of people talking together, thinking together and headed in a common direction.”

It will be interesting to see what kind of collaboration there will be between NASA, Made in Space and the ESA on furthering the use and applications of 3D Printing within space. If anything, this announcement should at least speed up research and development pertaining to additive manufacturing outside the earth’s atmosphere.

Let’s hear your thoughts on the ESA’s plans. Discuss this story in the ESA POP3D Space Printer forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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