ESA to send 3D printer to the International Space Station

The European Space Agency is poised to send a 3D printer to the International Space Station, bringing the count to two printers that will be orbiting high above the Earth.

The ESA has been all over the news lately thanks to the success of its Rosetta mission, the probe it launched on 2004 to rendezvous with Comet 67P as it orbits the sun. Rosetta reached the comet in August and began analyzing 67P, and the second phase of the mission – sending its Philae lander to the surface of the comet in a first-ever soft landing attempt – was also successful, though Philae landed in a spot that has put its continued operation in jeopardy.

Not willing to rest on its laurels, the space agency is hard at work on its next project, which will see the 10-inch cube being sent into orbit sometime during the first six months of next year. The 3D printer will arrive in time to meet Samanth Cristoforetti, the Italian astronaut the ESA recently sent to join the ISS crew.

Italy’s ASI space agency designed the Portable On-Board Printer specifically with an eye towards efficiency. The device uses a heat-based process that draws very little power, which differs greatly from how the current NASA designed 3D printer on the ISS works. The POP3D printer will be tasked with creating biodegradable plastic components for the crew; the objects will then be sent back down to Earth in order to compare how they differ from terrestrial objects made using the same technology.

The mission for both the ESA and NASA regarding the use of these 3D printers is to understand if they can be used to produce parts and equipment needed for repairs and experiments. Hopes are high that 3D printing could lead to cost savings for space agencies as astronauts could simply print out objects they need while in orbit instead of having to have replacement parts shipped from Earth in costly and sometimes risky unmanned flights; the failure of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket last month highlighted how problems at launch could delay resupply trips to the space station.

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