Russian Team Aims to Send Carbon Fiber 3D Printing to Space

A team plans to send a 3D printer capable of combining carbon fiber and plastic to the International Space Station.

When the first 3D printer in space landed at the International Space Station (ISS), it could 3D print with ABS, the plastic found in LEGO bricks. Made In Space subsequently improved upon its Zero-G 3D printer with what the company calls the Additive Manufacturing Facility, a commercial 3D printer that can print in high-density polyethylene and polyetherimide-polycarbonate composite, in addition to ABS.

Now that the first commercial 3D printer is installed aboard the ISS, the next moves for space additive manufacturing will involve upgrading those 3D printing capabilities even further. A team from Russia plans to do just that by sending a 3D printer to the ISS that can fabricate carbon fiber composites for rigid, durable microsatellites.

The project will see two companies from the Skolkovo tech park, Sputnix and Anisoprint, team up with Moscow Polytechnic University to develop a 3D printer capable of blending traditional thermoplastics with continuous carbon fiber reinforcement to produce parts that can survive the depths of space.

The Anisoprint carbon fiber 3D printer. (Image courtesy of Anisoprint.)

The base technology was developed by Anisoprint, which has created a printer that works by feeding continuous strands of carbon fiber into a thermoplastic object as it is being printed. This results in parts with 10 times the rigidity of thermoplastic parts, according to the Russian team. If this sounds familiar, that’s because Markforged employs a similar process to reinforce nylon objects with carbon fiber, Kevlar and fiberglass.

Together with microsatellite manufacturer Sputnix, Anisoprint will be modifying its 3D printer for use in microgravity this summer. This will involve taking into account the safety requirements of the Russian sector of the ISS and anticipating the effects of printing without gravity. To understand how 3D-printed parts will survive in space, the partners will subject them to a thermal environment simulation chamber and a vibro-bench.

Fyodor Antonov, director of Anisoprint, explained the advantages of its technology for space manufacturing: “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. The fundamental difference between our Russian invention and the American one is that our printer prints with composites—not just plastic, but continuous carbon fiber-reinforced plastic. We’d like to use our device to print—right up there in orbit—parts of satellites made out of carbon fiber-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.”

Once the printer is complete, the team will prep for sending the printer to the ISS, where it will begin printing test items, such as solar battery panels, antennae components and fixtures. The ultimate test, however, will be to 3D print whole devices, such as CubeSats, to be outfitted with electronics already aboard the ISS and send them out into space.

Sputnix previously sent the first private Russian remote-sensing microsatellite into space in 2014 and initiated the project with the goal of producing devices in space. As Andrei Potapov, general director of Sputnix, elaborated, “We are very interested in the prospect of additive manufacturing [3D printing] in space. We believe it’s the technology of the future. 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. 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.”

Moscow Polytechnic University enters the picture by providing an educational component for the project. The university will potentially host design competitions to have schoolchildren design microsatellite components. Winners will have their designs printed and assembled into working satellites to be launched into orbit.

As Alexander Shaenko, head of the Contemporary Cosmonautics educational program at Moscow Polytechnic University, said of the initiative, “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. 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. 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.”

While the competition may plan to send an even more powerful 3D printer to the ISS, Made In Space may not be too worried. The AMF has a modular design, which will enable the Silicon Valley company to upgrade the machine when possible, including the ability to print metal. As Made In Space has already partnered with NanoRacks to deploy CubeSats from the ISS, it’s possible the company may even be able to do so before the Russian team does.