A 3D printer for use in space is the end goal of a joint project between two residents of the Skolkovo Foundation – the companies Sputnix and Anisoprint – and Moscow Polytechnic University.

Fyodor Antonov, director of Anisoprint., a resident of Skolkovo's nuclear technologies cluster. Photo: Skoltech.

The device will be able to print construction elements of microsatellites using composite materials while in orbit, its creators say. The project combines the experience of Anisoprint in the 3D printing of parts from composite materials with that of Sputnix in making small spacecraft and onboard systems for them. 

Sputnix, a resident of the foundation’s space technologies and communications cluster, in 2014 launched the first private Russian remote sensing microsatellite, using a Dnepr rocket launcher. The company was founded in 2011.

Anisoprint, a resident of the foundation’s nuclear technologies cluster, was founded in 2015 by staff of the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech). It provides technology for the 3D printing of continuous fibre reinforced composites. 

In the U.S. sector of the International Space Station, interesting experiments are already taking place using a 3D printer developed by the company Made In Space, Fyodor Antonov, director of Anisoprint, told Sk.ru. 

“The American printer uses ABS plastic and is most suited for printing supplementary instruments and prototypes of devices. To make actual construction elements for space technology, more research is required,” said Antonov.

“The fundamental difference between our Russian invention and the American one is that our printer prints with composites – not just plastic, but continuous carbon fibre reinforced plastic. We’d like to use our device to print – right up there in orbit – parts of satellites made out of carbon fibre reinforced plastic, practically the same kind used on Earth to make the main body of large satellites, solar battery panels, antenna reflectors and all sorts of other elements of spacecraft.”

The project, initiated by Sputnix, is planned to be carried out in several stages. This summer, the two companies plan to make a model of the printer, taking into account the conditions of working in zero gravity, as well as the safety requirements for use of equipment on board the Russian sector of the International Space Station.

The joint team plans to test its 3D space printer on board the Russian sector of the International Space Station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

To get an idea of how the printed constructions will behave in space, they will be subjected to experiments in a thermal environment simulation chamber and a vibro-bench. The cost will be determined of carrying out in-situ experiments in space.

The second stage will consist of preparations for a fully-fledged experiment on board the ISS. The project’s authors don’t expect this stage to take very long, since Roscosmos, the state space corporation, has said it intends to use the resources of the Russian sector of the ISS to carry out educational and technological experiments. First, the entrepreneurs plan to print in orbit construction panels for a solar battery, parts of antennae systems and fixtures for devices, but in the future, the scientists want to be able to print whole devices, primarily in the format of CubeSat – a miniature satellite made up of cubic units – and fit them with electronics from the ISS’s onboard depository. Sputnix also designs such electronics. 

In the future, research into the possibility of printing is planned to continue onboard an automatic unit of equipment. 

“We are very interested in the prospect of additive manufacturing [3D printing] in space, we believe it’s the technology of the future,” said Andrei Potapov, general director of Sputnix. 

“Many people are aware of the idea of producing new materials in orbit, from construction parts right up to ready-made spacecraft – even asteroids are being considered as a possible source of material,” he said. 

“Making these plans a reality entails overcoming a lot of technical obstacles. Rather than wait for an asteroid to be delivered into Earth’s orbit, we decided to devise elements of technology for making and assembling satellites in space,” said Potapov. 

The project also has an educational aspect to it. Schoolchildren who win national engineering competitions could remotely print construction elements for microsatellites in orbit, which cosmonauts could then assemble for launch into space. Help with the methodology of the work is being provided by Moscow Polytechnic University, which has experience in running engineering courses and competitions such as the National Technology Initiative Engineering Olympiad last month. 

In-orbit manufacturing is the cutting edge of “grownup” space exploration, said Alexander Shaenko, head of the Contemporary Cosmonautics educational programme at Moscow Polytechnic University. 

“For schoolchildren and university students, working with something that until recently seemed like fantasy – that is only now coming to life – is fascinating and thrilling,” he said. 

“It offers new creative opportunities and the key to learning new skills that will be needed in these burgeoning and promising areas of human activity,” said Shaenko. 

“New manufacturing technologies, in particular additive manufacturing adapted for use in space, will open up the world of space exploration for thousands of young people and make it accessible to them,” he said.