AM for Space Exploration

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 living past the dawn of the commercial space age. Commercial space exploration or commercial planetary colonization may not yet be at hand but, driven by the satellite and communication industries, several companies of various sizes are now creating viable business opportunities in space.

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 next frontier for 3D printing

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. In its latest report dedicated to Space Additive Manufacturing, SmarTech Publishing expects AM to play a very significant role in the future development of the $330 billion space industry.

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.

Recently, Made In Space celebrated the one-year anniversary (March 23, 2016) of the launch of its Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) to the International Space Station (ISS). Since the second-generation 3D printer was installed on ISS, 39 prints have been made for customers, ranging from medical parts for researchers, parts for NASA and commercial customers such as Lowe’s and the Brazilian company Braskem, to STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) projects for students.

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.

  • Stratolaunch Systems PGA

    Stratolaunch Systems Corporation, a space transportation company founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, has released the latest update about its PGA liquid rocket engine. The engine, named after the billionaire business magnate and philanthropist, is being developed with the help of additive manufacturing and could offer an innovative solution…

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  • biomimicry

    Ever the proponent for additive manufacturing technologies, NASA has awarded a $127,000 grant to Phoenix Analysis and Design Technologies (PADT) and Arizona State University (ASU) to advance 3D printing research. The funding, a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Phase I grant, will specifically go towards biomimicry research for 3D printing…

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    NASA recently added a new 3D model to its database of space-themed 3D printable files. The latest addition is a miniature model of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, also known as SOFIA. The newly released model falls directly in line with our August Industry Focus on additive manufacturing and…

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  • SDState

    It’s not just cutting edge startups helping NASA achieve its 3D printing in space goals; students and universities are also playing an important role. At South Dakota State University (SDState), a team of mechanical engineering students have been developing new 3D printing materials for use aboard the International Space Station.…

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  • barrier

    With Mars nearer to us than it’s been in over a decade, it’s no wonder that space exploration and Mars missions have felt more palpable than ever. But it’s not only because the red planet could be seen by the naked eye this past week, it’s also because space organization…

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  • small satellites

    With many exciting developments in the intersecting industries of additive manufacturing and space exploration this past week, we were hardly surprised to hear that Made In Space, a pioneer of 3D printing in space, also had some news. The company, responsible for sending the first 3D printer (the AMF system)…

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  • UAM

    In 2014, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) awarded Ohio-based Fabrisonic seed funding to develop its hybrid Ultrasonic Additive Manufacturing (UAM) process for improved metal heat exchangers. With continued support from JPL over the years and with in depth development and testing, Fabrisonic has successfully developed pumped fluid loop heat exchangers…

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  • Beginning in 2014, the NASA 3D-Printed Habitat Competition has been challenging teams from around the world to propose effective solutions for colonizing the red planet through robotic building systems (which are now generally understood to be different types of 3D printers). After two stages where NASA awarded a total of…

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  • Despite the fact that construction 3D printing is still just taking off here on Earth, some companies are already looking beyond the Stratosphere towards building 3D printed habitats and liveable structures in space. The ambitious and quite niche branch of AM research, spurred on by space exploration organizations such as…

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  • Accessibility to 3D printing on the ISS has allowed astronauts to print custom plastic tools and parts that are needed to successfully achieve their mission. No need to come back to earth to fetch that tool, you can now print it at zero G with the 3D printer currently running…

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