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Published on March 29, 2017

3D Printing for Space

  • 3D Printing has been used in space flight, rocket systems and satellites for a number of years.
  • Applications for the use of 3D Printing in space flight are growing.
  • The main reasons to use the technology to save weight, faster part development, lower cost of parts, new geometries that can not be made in another way and new applications.
  • Satellites, rocket engines and parts for use by astronauts on board space craft are being printed.
  • For long term space exploration research is being done in 3D Printing space craft, 3D Printing in space craft and 3D Printing on planets.

3D Printing has been used by space agencies and commercial companies working in space for a number of years. Through producing unique parts quickly the technology is seen as a cost effective solution for producing parts for space. 3D Printing also lets you make weight saving parts that can not be made with other technologies. 3D Printed parts can also be designed in such a way as to dramatically reduce the number of parts. This saves weight, time and assembly cost and risk. By using 3D Printing the space industry can also iteratively continually improve its designs and create better parts more quickly. In this post we’ll look at the mayor ways in which 3D Printing is currently being used for space.



3D Printed Rocket Engines

NASA, AerojetRocketdyne, ULA, SpaceX, OrbitalATK, BlueOrigin and many space agencies are using 3D Printing in rocket engines. Rocket engine development is a complex technological challenge and results in the development of unique parts that require high tolerances. In rocket engine development programs 3D printing has saved money and let teams develop parts faster. Weight reducing and performance optimized parts can be 3D Printed to give rocket developers greater design freedom. There is also a dramatic part reduction opportunity with 3D Printing. In some cases combustion chambers have been made where the part count has been reduced significantly from 119 parts to two for example. This reduction in part count minimizes weight and assembly cost and the running costs of the rocket engine over time. In terms of risk the risk is concentrated in the 3D Printing manufacturing step. The number of manufacturing processes and steps are reduced as the number of materials. Essentially overal part numbers are reduced but also requirements for joining processes and interactions between materials. Molds and tooling don’t have to be saved and design changes are implemented quicker.

3D Printing in rocket engines is mostly done with metal 3D Printing processes. Direct Metal Laser Sintering (also known as Selective Laser Melting, Additive Layer Manufacturing, LaserCusing, Powder Bed Fusion), Electron Beam Melting (EBM) or Directed Energy Deposition (DED) are the processes most used. DMLS and EBM are deemed suitable for rocket engine chambers and parts whereas DED is being evaluated for larger structural components. Companies are working in titanium and high temperature superalloys such as Hastelloy and Inconel (Iconel). Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM, also known as FFF Fast Filament Fabrication or Material Extrusion) is also used for interior parts such as brackets and nozzles. This uses high temperature plastics such as Ultem (PEI, Polyether Imide).

Demonstrated savings in time and money have been made and verified  in rocket engine development by multiple parties. In terms of rocket engine development 3D Printing will be a key technology implemented on nearly all next generation rocket platforms.

Parts for Space Vehicles

Above you can see a PEEK plastic Battery Case Enclosure 3D Printed using Fused Deposition Modeling (Material Extrusion) by NASA Godard and used in space.

As well as for rocket engines multiple parties are evaluating 3D Printing’s use for space vehicles themselves. The arguments for their use are the same as disclosed above in the rocket engine section. Simultaneously there is the added benefit that by 3D Printing prototypes and demonstrators it is thereafter easier to take these parts and to then to the final 3D Printed product with them. High Temperature superalloys, titanium but also steels are being considered for these applications. In addition to metal technologies such as DMLS and DED increasingly companies and institutes are developing parts with engineering plastics such as PEEK (Polyether ether ketone), polyetherketoneketone (PEKK) or PEI. These are very wear resistant tough materials that can withstand high temperatures. Engineering plastics such as PEI, PEKK and PEEK are 3D Printed using either Powder Bed Fusion or Material Extrusion (FDM) technology.

By going quicker from prototype to final part solutions are created in a more timely way. New space parts are made with lower cost and at higher speed than by other technologies.

3D Printed Satellites

3D Printing has also been used for satellite parts. Companies and agencies such as Airbus Space & Defense, RUAG, ESA, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are using 3D Printing for satellite parts. The main way to take advantage of 3D Printing is through weight savings on the satellite itself. Items such as satellite brackets are being looked to first in order to produce significant weight savings amounting to 1 KG or more per satellite or 40% or more in the weight of certain parts. As well as government and commercial companies using 3D printing there are a growing number of cubesat builders using 3D Printing. Cubesats are small inexpensive satellites that can be constructed by Universities for space exploration. These have the potential to greatly reduce the cost of access to space. With the microprocessor and other technologies always advancing more and more technology can be packed in a Cubesat. Relatively very inexpensive to launch already, costs have been further reduced by lowering the manufacturing cost by using 3D Printing.

3D Printed Parts for use by Astronauts 

Above you can see a NASA Astronaut holding up a 3D Printed part made on board the International Space Station.

A 3D Printer is currently being tested aboard the ISS to demonstrate the feasibility of 3D Printing in zero gravity and on board space craft. NASA is also working on developing a material recycler capable of recycling plastics into useful objects on board space craft. ESA is trying to develop a metal 3D printer for use on board space craft.

When considering multiyear missions in space and missions to other planets 3D Printing becomes a required technology. Space and weight will always be a premium on board space craft. Things will break and the team will encounter unanticipated situations. The 3D Printer in this context acts as a magical problem solving technology. Using 3D Printing the crew could design and print out objects to circumvent unanticipated problems. Parts could be made for repairs and materials on board could be recycled in order to become new parts for the mission. We’re very far from “Tea, Earl Grey, Hot” but as we can see 3D Printing is becoming an increasingly useful and used technology in space. Curious to learn more, contact us.