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esa2All eyes have been on NASA lately, with the July 4th arrival of the Juno spacecraft to Jupiter’s orbit making international (perhaps interplanetary?!) news. Like nearly all of NASA’s endeavors nowadays, Juno brought with it several 3D printed components, the first interplanetary spacecraft to do so. The European Space Agency (ESA), however, has never been one to let NASA hog the headlines, and yesterday they proudly announced the inauguration of their new Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory, which will be dedicated to the study of 3D printing and other advanced manufacturing technologies for future space missions.

ESA-RAL Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory inauguration at STFC's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory on 19th July 2016. Image shows Johann-Dietrich Woerner, ESA Director General speaking at the event.

Jan Woerner at the Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory inauguration

ESA Director General Jan Woerner has expressed several bold ideas relating to 3D printing and space in the past, including his intention to build a 3D printed base on the moon. The Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory, which will be located at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Harwell, Oxfordshire, is another logistical step towards seeing those ideas as a reality.

“There’s a multitude of emerging technologies with apparent potential for producing stronger, lighter and cheaper spacecraft structures, but we have to be sure they are fully suitable for space with no show-stoppers,” said Andrew Barnes, who oversees the Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory. “Our laboratory aims to assess candidate materials and manufacturing processes for space missions, pre-screening them early in their development cycle. The results obtained will help guide ESA and the wider space industry in deciding where to focus future technology investments.”

The lab is equipped with a metal 3D printer as well as powerful microscopes, an X-ray CT machine, and several furnaces. It’s also set up for mechanical testing, such as micro-hardness and tensile strength testing. Researchers can also take advantage of the other facilities at the RAL, including the Central Laser Facility, the ISIS neutron and muon source, and the Diamond Light Source, along with semiconductor cleanrooms and cryogenic laboratories.

ESA-RAL Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory

ESA-RAL Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory.

“We’ve already been using STFC’s ISIS pulsed spallation neutron source to investigate the structural integrity of friction stir welded titanium for use in spacecraft propellant tanks,” said laboratory research fellow Sarah Baker. “ISIS allows residual stress measurements to be performed in the bulk material using neutron diffraction.

 

“Friction welding involves a high speed rubbing together of metal parts rather than the application of external heat to melt the parts. The technique should result in stronger welds. ISIS has allowed us to confirm this by measuring the internal stresses induced by the process to confirm the final weld quality.”

ESA-RAL Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory

A technician performs a hardness test at ESA-RAL Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory

The laboratory’s work will include a close examination of 3D printing processes, including design procedures, physical process parameters and materials, and their effects on the quality of manufactured parts. The Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory is the latest addition to a network of ESA labs scattered across Europe – including the European Space Research and Technology Centre, or ESTEC.

Located in the Netherlands, ESTEC is described by the ESA as the “technical heart” of the European space program, and its Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory bears a large load of responsibility for material and equipment testing. According to Tommaso Ghidini, ESTEC’s head of materials technology, the Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory will offer much needed support to the work being done in the Netherlands.

“At ESTEC, much of the work is on a rapid-response basis to support the needs of space projects, performing tests and failure analysis on materials and equipment, albeit at a relatively high technology readiness level,” he said. “The Harwell facility complements ESTEC by focusing on low technology readiness level investigations. Here, we’re operating on a different basis, looking at samples right down to the nanometre scale to understand their underlying structure, and how it relates to their physical properties, so we can really deliver an inside-out understanding of a candidate material or process and catch early technologies with high potential for space applications.”

The new lab is part of the ESA’s Advanced Manufacturing Initiative, which was formed recently to facilitate the adoption of – and eventually develop standards for – additive manufacturing and other advanced manufacturing techniques across all European space programs. Discuss further over in the ESA Advanced Manufacturing & 3D Printing forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source: ESA/Images: S. Kill, STFC]

 

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