AM for Space

Space additive manufacturing is going to have a key role in enabling the future of human space travel and interplanetary colonization. In fact, it is already playing a key role in enabling the production of low-cost satellites and lighter, more efficient rockets to take cargos into orbit.

Whether it will take another 10, 50 or 100 years for commercial space-based ventures to grow into one of the largest—if not the largest—manufacturing segments, we are already past the dawn of the commercial space age and we just experienced the dawn of the commercial human space age. Commercial space exploration or commercial planetary colonization will soon be within our reach, as several companies of various sizes are now creating viable business opportunities in space for satellites and the communication industry.

One of the most significant challenges that all these space ventures need to overcome in order to place satellites, probes, landers, telescopes or even spacecraft in orbit is the high per kilogram cost required to break free of the Earth’s gravitational pull. This means that for every additional kilogram of payload, mission costs can increase by several orders of magnitude because heavier or bigger payloads require larger and more powerful launch vehicles.

Additive manufacturing provides the most effective tool to optimize weight in systems built to reach space. This is true both for launch vehicles and—until the time when resources are gathered in space—for spaceborne systems and devices. Together with weight-optimized geometries, AM can help to greatly lower the cost of commercial space activities by continuing to drive the development of advanced materials, including metal replacement, high-performance polymers and composites.

space additive manufacturing
Click on the image to read about the most relevant projects for 3D printing interplanetary space habitats

Space, the initial frontier

Additional direct advantages can be derived from increased process automation for small batch series or single item production—which is a more relevant issue in rocketry and satellite manufacturing than in any manufacturing segment. This is especially true within the $120-billion commercial infrastructure and support segments—including the manufacturing of spacecraft, in-space platforms and ground equipment, as well as launch services and independent research and development. While the overall revenues will continue to represent only a minimal part of the overall space manufacturing industry, AM has the potential to be one of the key elements that will help the commercial space industry grow into maturity.

Further down the road, with more people traveling in Space, AM more and more production will take place in Space as well. Nowhere is production more distributed than outside of our planet, and no technology can deliver on-location, distributed manufacturing of complex part more efficiently than additive manufacturing. Getting to orbit, getting through space, and staying in space will only be possible through AM.

Availability of construction materials (e.g., metals, water) in space (on asteroids or on surfaces of planetary bodies) creates the possibility to additively build settlements and other facilities without having to take expensive and bulky prefabricated materials out of Earth’s gravitational field. Lunar and Mars regolith, for example, could be used to construct pressurized habitats for human shelter as well as other infrastructure (landing pads, roads, blast walls, shade walls and hangars for protection against thermal radiation and micrometeorites). Several NASA and ESA funded projects explored the concept of using various additive manufacturing techniques to build infrastructure on the Moon and on Mars.

Exactly how it will happen is the Focus of 3dpbm’s Aerospace AM Focus 2020 for this entire month. We have lots of great content coming up so stay tuned.

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