How 3D Printing Could Reshape Space R&D

Science fiction has portrayed a variety of different ways humans could live in outer space.

Notable films have depicted thriving cities on far away planets like Mars and Jupiter and specialized technologies that can quickly create any item the user requested.

Visionaries like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson are attempting to bring us closer to that reality.

All three companies started by these industry titans are in a competitive race to see who can develop reusable rockets that can launch a new era of space tourism.

However, establishing the potential to travel to the outer rim of the solar system is only half the battle.

Scientists are exploring how additive manufacturing— also known as 3D printing— could help create new tools to help astronauts survive in the dark recesses of space as well as more closely examine the properties these planets possess that could yield a more hospitable environment.

R&D Magazine rounded up some of the noteworthy experiments being conducted so far.

Space Fabric

A team of engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory unveiled a specialized form of space fabric produced via 3D printing. The researchers built this material, which resembles chain mail, by adding each layer of material on top of each other to build the desired object.

“We call it ‘4D printing’ because we can print both the geometry and the function of these materials,” said lead researcher and systems engineer Raul Polit Casillas, in a statement. “If 20th Century manufacturing was driven by mass production, then this is the mass production of functions.”

The material has four essential functions: reflectivity, passive heat management, foldability and tensile strength.

One side of the textile reflects light, while the other absorbs it. This acts as a means of thermal control, while additional malleability imbued into these prototypes enables it to fold in different directions while still being able to sustain the force of pulling on it.

Some of the potential applications conceived by these researchers include incorporating these futuristic textiles into large antennae’s and other deployable devices that withstand the elements of space. Also, this invention could be added to future iterations of spacesuits and spacecrafts so they gain an added layer of protection when traversing through hostile terrain.

More testing needs to be done to refine the fabric’s efficacy, but this could ultimately open the door to a revolutionary way to engineer a new type of spacecraft.

Next-Gen Rocket Parts

Another important additive manufacturing application could revolve around building a new series of rockets in a cheaper, stream-lined capacity.

Some engineering teams are starting small by using 3D printing to construct new rocket components instead of a complete engine.

Researchers from MIT focused on a rocket nozzle for their experiment. Most commercial versions of these rocket nozzles are made of metal, which is difficult and costly to 3D print. This element is crucial for stability and durability, according to Popular Science. 

Nylon was used in this experiment, as any cheaper materials like plastic would melt when exposed to the high temperatures of the rocket exhaust.

The scientists verified this component’s efficacy through two tests.

The first delivered positive results. They used a less energetic propellant that was easier on the motor case and gave off less heat and lower pressure. The rocket motor achieved supersonic flow and produced thrust, allowing the case to survive in decent shape. Only a few millimeters of plastic eroded from the throat.

Next, the second examination used a more energetic propellant. The throat was already worn from the first test and quickly eroded, becoming too large to maintain supersonic flow, according to a blog post documenting this procedure.

Essentially, the erosion from the first test hampered the nozzle’s ability to produce thrust for the second test.

The engineers were not discouraged by these results because the nozzle was never intended to be fired more than once. The more encouraging aspect of this experiment was that it shows functional nozzles for these rockets can be created on an innovative, lower-cost plastic printer versus the more expensive machines that generate metallic composites.

Producing New Habitats

Voyages to far-away planets would also require inhabitable environments where researchers could safely perform their experiments over a long period of time.

NASA is in the midst of hosting a competition where teams are working on new methods of “additive construction.”

The team’s partaking in this three part venture are tasked with developing the fundamental 3D printing technology, including the printer and construction materials needed to build structurally sound habitats.

Next, the contestants had to print beams, cylinders and domes that were analyzed and compressed to failure to determine scores and prize awards, according to the announcement.

NASA selected two winners on August 27, 2017 for the second phase of this competition.

The first place price of $250,000 went to a startup named Branch Technology based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The second place prize of $150,000 went to a team from Pennsylvania State University.

Both teams used an element called “powdery Crushed Basaltic Igneous” as the indigenous base for their projects, reported TechCrunch.

Branch Technology augmented this material with recycled plastic while the Penn State team attempted to create a cement-like material that incorporated water.

The end result showed that the dome developed by Branch was able to handle 373 pounds of weight while Penn State’s version collapsed under just below half of that. However, a NASA rep told TechCrunch this variation could have withstood the pressure if had more time to cure and become stronger.

Phase 1 was geared towards coming up with state-of-the-art architectural concepts that could be conceived by 3D printing while Phase 2 was engineered to make competitors find ways to produce these structural components.

The third phase of this competition is still under development, but will focus on fabrication of complete habitats.

No official date has been set for when the third part of the competition will take place.

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