Space Exploration has always been a domain of keen interest for humanity, and constantly new technologies are developing to make it feasible, cost-effective, and sustainable. According to various experts, additive manufacturing (AM) is a technology that is playing a significant role in space technology.
The article by AM Chronicle explores the role of AM in space exploration and how recent developments in AM are shaping the space industry.
Metal AM technology is considered a transformative manufacturing method for rocket engineering. Due to the key features such as customization of materials, low-volume production, and cost economics, it has been used widely by space companies and new startups across the globe. In addition, various scientific studies state that metal AM improves wide range of engineering parameters required for optimization and improvement in design.
An Indian Start-up, Agnikul, recently received a patent for its unique 3D printed rocket engine that can be used for space applications. According to the company, metal AM technology provides a high customization level and 3kN thrust at sea level. China’s leading aerospace company, Deep Blue Aerospace, uses metal AM technology to make 80% of its rocket engines. Other companies using metal AM for rocket engines include SpaceX and government space research organizations.
One of the critical challenges of building a space habitat is the challenge of transportation of materials from earth to space. Experts suggest that one of the potential solutions to resolve this challenge is to build the space’s habitat using the materials available in the surrounding. Construction AM is a technology that can fix many difficulties for a space habitat. In addition, polymer AM and metal AM can be used to develop the space habitat as it does not require special tools and fixtures.
To address the issue, NASA launched “NASA’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge”, in which companies were given a problem statement to develop and 3D print materials specifically for a space habitat. The challenge was mainly focused on the materials available on the moon and mars.
AI Smart factory, an AM company, has developed composite materials to 3D print structures on the moon and mars using local materials. One of their projects is known as LINA is related to the construction AM for the moon using robots and shows the importance of AM in developing space habitats.
Manufacturing in Space
“In-space manufacturing” is the process that enable manufacturing in space. In-space manufacturing is an essential process for long-term space exploration projects. The key engineering challenge for in-space manufacturing is the ability to produce components in zero gravity or low gravity conditions.
Under the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program with Made In Space (MIS), NASA successfully performed fused deposition modeling in zero gravity. In addition, Iowa State University researchers successfully tested a new approach to 3D print electronics in zero gravity. Incus has partnered with European Space Agency to 3D print in microgravity conditions using its metal AM technology.
Assemblies and components for Space Applications
Metal, polymer, and composite AM technology can be used to manufacture components for a wide range of space applications. In addition, using the DfAM approach, new products and assemblies are designed for space applications by space tech companies across the globe.
Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology ( CSEM ) has recently designed and developed a thermal control system with sensors for space rockets and satellites. The use of metal AM in the development of thermal control systems has helped engineers optimize the part design. Objectify Technologies and ISRO have also patterned to develop legacy components for space applications.
Bio-Printing in Space
Space habitat is a dream of humanity and is impossible without access to high-quality medical services in space. Bio-printing in space is a constantly developing domain, and various companies and research organizations are developing technologies to print organs, medicines, and medical devices for faster and improved medical services in space.
The European Space Agency has recently printed a human bone in space conditions, which can be used for transplants or fractures. Further bioprinting company, Allevi have, also developed a bioprinter that can be used for bio-printing in space conditions. The printer is called Allevi ZeroG and can be used for research and development in space conditions.