NASA Funds 3D Printing Projects for Upcoming Era of Space Exploration

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Driven by Moon exploration, space tourism, spacecraft manufacturing, and orbital infrastructure, space agencies and private companies worldwide have developed ambitious plans for the future of spaceflight. This heightened interest in space exploration offers new opportunities for scientific and technological research to address some of the challenges that humanity will imminently face in orbit. With disruptive technologies, like additive manufacturing, proven to be critical to plenty of space applications, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has recently announced it will support 27 3D printing technology proposals as part of its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. The selected projects are among 409 technology proposals for the program’s first phase of funding that will provide $51 million to 312 small businesses in 44 states and Washington, D.C.

To extend human presence beyond Earth’s orbit, NASA is looking to small businesses and research institutions to ensure long-term, innovative and sustainable technologies that could have significant potential for a successful transition into its main mission programs and other commercial markets. Since the 1970s, small businesses have created approximately 55 percent of all jobs in the United States and have collaborated for decades with NASA to stimulate technological innovation that can create pioneering developments for space research and colonization. In the last couple of years, the American space agency has encouraged unconventional and original projects to help land astronauts on the Moon in four years and establish a sustainable presence there, as part of the agency’s larger Moon to Mars exploration approach, the Artemis program. 

NASA depends on America’s small businesses for innovative technology development that helps us achieve our wide variety of missions,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington. “Whether we’re landing Artemis astronauts on the Moon, sending rovers to Mars, or developing next-generation aircraft our small business partners play an important role.”

NASA image of the United States of America at night from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite (Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Robert Simmon)

This year, many selected companies will use 3D printing technology as the basis of their projects, which range from additively manufactured thermal protection systems for space vehicles to the creation of an AM facility for the International Space Station (ISS).

The selected proposals showcase technologies that aim to benefit human space exploration as well as science, technology, and aeronautics. Many of the innovations also have potential applications on Earth, in the healthcare field, automotive industry, manufacture, and much more. Here are a few examples of the AM projects selected for this year’s SBIR and STTR Phase I program:

  1. Currently, the only operational printing facility on the ISS is for plastics such as ABS and PLA. But Louisiana-based startup Vistacent proposes the development of a one-of-a-kind multi-material AM facility for in-space manufacturing that uses engineered plastics, complex high-performance fiber-reinforced composites, and sintered metallic parts. Based on fused deposition modeling (FDM) technology, the facility would allow crew members aboard the ISS as well as other potential customers – like NASA contractors SpaceX, Boeing, and Lockheed – to fabricate parts on-demand in orbit.
  2. Another ambitious proposal comes from 3D rocket maker Relativity Space. The startup outlined a way to create real-time automatic defect detection and tagging in large-scale 3D printing applications. Through their proposal, titled Relativity Space: 3D Printing the Future, the startup suggested that 3D technologies, like automatic defect detection, are key for 3D printing off-planet, in line with NASA’s exploration goals. This, in turn, would yield benefits such as the capability for in-situ manufacturing, on-demand manufacturing from feedstock, manufacturing objects that cannot be launched from Earth, and the ability to design missions in novel ways to reduce costs. 
  3. A team of experts from the University of Delaware and Texas-based company KAI will use a recently developed additive manufacturing technique, called localized in-plane thermal assisted (LITA) 3D printing to manufacture thermal protection systems that use continuous carbon fiber reinforced high-temperature thermoset composites. The application will serve NASA’s Orion and unmanned re-entry spacecraft, rocket nozzles of exoplanetary lander systems, and space launch system (SLS).
  4. Leading developers of innovative cold spray systems VRC Metal Systems joined researchers from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology to advance in-space propulsion by developing high-pressure cold spray into an additive manufacturing method for GRCop-42 (a material developed at the NASA Glenn Research Center that has shown considerable promise for staged combustion rocket engine cycles such as the Space Shuttle Main Engine). The technique is ideal for hot structure technology for aerospace vehicles and has other potential uses in the aerospace manufacturing industry, as well as in 3D metal printing.
  5. In-space manufacturing efforts are among the top priorities for NASA and other commercial space companies, which is why IERUS Technologies, in Alabama, proposed to investigate the use of a novel metal additive manufacturing process called additive friction stir deposition (AFS-D) to fabricate and repair large structures in the external space environment. Commercially known as MELD, the AFS-D process produces fully-dense, near-net-shape structures in open atmospheric conditions without secondary post-processing. According to IERUS’ proposal, the technique is ideal to unlock in-space manufacturing potential, due to its robust capabilities that include deposition of almost any metal on the market, building complex 3D structures without support material, and in-orbit recycling capabilities.
  6. Focused on creating advanced laser 3D manufacturing systems, PolarOnyx presented an unprecedented precision laser 3D manufacturing system that relies on additive manufacturing, subtractive manufacturing, and athermal welding, to manufacture sub-micron precision telescope structures. By the end of Phase I, PolarOnyx expects to carry out a proof of concept demonstration, while prototypes for NASA’s large telescope system requirements are expected during Phase II. This advanced technology has other potential uses in satellite manufacturing, space vehicles, medical devices, and biomedical instrumentation.

Companies will receive up to $125,000 for each of the Phase I selections. SBIR awards are only given to small businesses, while STTR awards are granted to small businesses that partner with a non-profit research institution. Once Phase I SBIR and STTR contracts are finished, after six and 13 months respectively, NASA plans to select and award multimillion-dollar sequential Phase II contracts to some companies with previous Phase II contracts. According to the agency, these upcoming awards will further mature a range of technologies related to the sustainable exploration of the Moon, the Artemis program, and America’s broader Moon to Mars objectives.

NASA’s Artemis program is part of the agency’s broader Moon to Mars exploration approach to explore more of the Moon and prepare for the next giant leap – human exploration of Mars.
Credits: NASA

“A Phase I award is just the first step in helping these small businesses bring their technologies and ideas to market,” said NASA SBIR and STTR Program Executive Jenn Gustetic. “We know these companies not only need funding, but business guidance and industry expertise to help them develop better products and grow. Our program aims to help each of them in their journeys to commercialization.”

As part of the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, the SBIR and STTR programs encourage small businesses to develop innovative ideas that meet the federal government’s specific research and development needs and also offer the potential for commercialization.

Many of the small companies taking part in NASA’s award program come from an additive manufacturing background and understand the importance of the technology’s contribution to the expanding space frontier. Using AM for space applications is critical to reduce costs and produce highly customizable components fast, making it ideal for the upcoming competitive commercial operations that will take over low Earth orbit (LEO) and beyond. With a new era of human spaceflight set to begin soon, more than 70 space agencies and dozens of up and coming companies worldwide are getting ready for some of the biggest and most exciting space missions set to take place over the next decade. Furthermore, NASA has been preparing for this moment in history for a very long time, and small businesses have always been part of the agency’s vision of a successful future in space.

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