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NASA Announces Collaborations to Advance 3D Printing Technologies for Space Exploration

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In only four years, NASA astronauts are expected to land on the Moon as part of the space agency’s ambitious Artemis program that will use innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. In the 18 months since NASA accepted the bold challenge to accelerate its sustainable exploration plans, the agency has continued to gain momentum toward sending humans to the Moon again, and for the first time since the last Apollo lunar mission in 1972. Now, it has selected 17 U.S. companies to mature industry-developed space technologies for the Moon and beyond.

Five out of the 20 partnerships will seek to advance additive manufacturing (AM) technologies, materials, and processes to accelerate the development of emerging space capabilities. Among them, a 3D printing system for the Artemis lunar exploration program; better engine designs through metal AM; advanced large-scale directed energy deposition (DED) of high-strength aluminum alloys for complex rocket components, and more.

“Space technology development doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” said Jim Reuter, the Associate Administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), which made the selections and will manage the partnerships. “Whether companies are pursuing space ventures of their own or maturing cutting-edge systems to one day offer a new service to NASA, the agency is dedicated to helping bring new capabilities to market for our mutual benefit.”

ISRU-based robotic construction technologies for lunar and Martian infrastructures. Image courtesy of NASA

The collaborative project selections are part of NASA’s STMD’s Announcement of Collaboration Opportunity (ACO). A solicitation for innovations that help reduce the development costs of space technologies and accelerate the infusion of emerging commercial capabilities into future missions. The selected projects will be governed by unfunded Space Act Agreements between the companies and NASA. In fact, to support the agreements, the businesses will gain access to NASA resources, like expertise and testing facilities, that carry an estimated value of $15.5 million.

Various NASA centers will work with the selected companies, which range from small businesses to large aerospace corporations, and even a previous NASA challenge winner, to provide expertise and access to the agency’s unique testing facilities. Here are the selected companies that will use 3D printing technology as the basis of their projects:

  1. A proposal under the advanced materials and structures topic has potential benefits on the Moon, Mars, and even on Earth. New Jersey-based AI SpaceFactory, an architectural and technology design firm and winner of NASA’s 2019 3D Printed Habitat Challenge for the successful construction of Mars habitat MARSHA, will develop a new material that mimics lunar regolith, or dirt. The company will collaborate with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and use the material to 3D print a test structure in a vacuum chamber that mimics environmental conditions on the Moon. The research could inform a 3D printing system capable of constructing large surface structures from in-situ materials on other worlds. While on Earth, a locally sourced, high-performance 3D printing material could benefit the construction industry by simplifying supply chains and reducing material waste.

    AI SpaceFactory’s 3D printed habitat for the Moon and Mars during NASA’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge. Image courtesy of NASA/Emmett Given

  2. Another proposal comes from leading aerospace manufacturer Blue Origin. One of the company’s two partnership proposals for the ACO solicitation involves a collaboration with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (Marshall) in Huntsville, Alabama, to improve rocket engine designs with metal additive manufacturing. Fabricating, processing, and testing 3D printed engine parts is expected to help optimize weight, engine efficiency, and manufacturability while minimizing production cost.

    Blue Origin’s liquid-fueled BE-4 rocket engine uses additive manufacturing to make boost pump components. Image courtesy of Blue Origin


  3. AM research and development company Elementum 3D from Erie, Colorado, will also be working with specialists at Marshall, but in this case, to increase the performance and reduce the cost of additively manufactured aluminum materials. The proposed initiative plans to mature the company’s A6061-RAM2 and A1000-RAM10 aluminum alloys for large-scale AM with blown powder DED. The partnership aims to advance large-scale DED of high-strength aluminum alloys for complex rocket components and launch structures. Eventually, the capability could be used broadly by aerospace, automotive, and other industries.

    As-built surface finish comparison between AlSi10Mg and Elementum 3D’s A6061-RAM2 aluminum alloy. Image courtesy of Elementum 3D

  4. Focusing on additive manufacturing of slurry-based thermoset resins to fabricate thermal protective systems, Cornerstone Research Group of Miamisburg, Ohio, will partner with NASA centers to test and evaluate the material’s performance in flight-relevant environments. The high-technology company usually delivers products and services to its aerospace, defense, and industrial customers, and now its researchers will be turning their focus to NASA facilities and experts at the Johnson Space Center and Ames Research Center for the project.
  5. Advanced propulsion technologies experts at IN Space of West Lafayette, Indiana, will collaborate with Marshall to explore the use of AM to produce a regeneratively cooled engine chamber for IN Space’s rotating detonation engine. This conceptual rocket engine design could potentially reach higher specific impulses than what is possible with current systems, which would allow spacecraft to operate with more crew and equipment and less mass. A technical risk limiting the design is the high heat and pressure load to the engine chamber, which is why IN Space will explore 3D printing a regeneratively cooled chamber.

These partnerships complement NASA’s Artemis program and help prepare the agency for its future exploration endeavors. With these agreements and NASA’s 2020 Tipping Point partnerships, STMD is slated to support the technology developments needed to establish a sustainable presence on the Moon and for future crewed missions to Mars. By promoting and facilitating the use of space through innovative technical goals, like these, exploration beyond Earth’s atmosphere can become a tangible reality for many countries and private companies and will help humanity achieve its most ambitious space exploration challenges.

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