Components for satellites and spacecraft are nowadays transported into space ineffectively transported into space by launch vehicles. A research team Munich University of Applied Sciences (HM) has, for the first time, used a 3D printer in a research rocket to a research rocket to print a structure in open space. The results are promising.

A group of scientists and former students of the HM have carried out experiments experiments on the fabrication of structures in space. The printed samples were returned to the Esrange Space Center, north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden, and evaluated.
First automated 3D printing under space conditions
The experiments on board the 5.60 m long and 35.5 cm wide research rocket were carried out at an altitude of up to 90 km and aimed to produce rods from a liquid photoreactive resin carried on board under conditions of weightlessness and in a vacuum using a 3D printer. The student team led by Prof. Dr. Markus Pietras, head of the Aerospace Engineering Master's programme, and doctoral student Michael Kringer were very pleased with the results: "No one knew whether our concept of autonomous 3D printing with liquid printing material would work under real would work under real space conditions. Everyone knows the pictures of liquids floating through the space station as spherical drops. floating through the space station. We were already worried that something like that could happen with our could happen with our material. By hardening the printing material with UV light directly at the nozzle, it behaved as hoped during printing and we were able to as we had hoped and we were able to produce rods successfully. produce rods.
New perspectives for space travel
The technology developed at HM creates new components directly through the three-dimensional movement of the print head. The photoreactive resin is pressed out of the print head through a nozzle and cured under irradiation with UV light. The method is very energy-efficient, as only LEDs are operated and post-curing can even be done with sunlight. It also produces very little waste heat, which has to be dissipated in a complicated way in space. Conventional 3D printing, such as that used on the International Space Station, requires considerably more energy because thermoplastic material is first melted, then applied in layers and cooled again.
cooled again.
The future application lies in the creation of large structures directly on site, so that the costly transport of parts is no longer necessary. Kringer explains the advantages: "Space is limited on launch vehicles. Important components such as antennas or solar generators must therefore be designed very compactly for the launch and then deployed in orbit. With 3D printing, we could build the structures on site the way we really want them."
From the laboratory to in-space manufacturing
In-space manufacturing of structures is a concern for all space agencies, if only for cost reasons. After successful tests with 3D printing of complex structures and shapes in HM's laboratory, the next logical step was to test them under zero-gravity conditions. The team successfully applied to the FlyYourThesis! programme of the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2020. They tested their method further during parabolic flights in a converted Airbus. With the tests in a sounding rocket, the researchers have now proved that the technology can also be used in space. Together with ESA and industrial partners, they are continuing to research the technology and are already thinking about the next step: a longer deployment of the printer on a satellite in Earth orbit. Pietras is optimistic: "Apart from the economic aspects, the technology will also expand the possibilities for space exploration. Space-based solar power or a manned Mars mission, for example, I can't imagine without on-site manufacturing."


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