NASA Funds 36 Space 3D Printing Projects—Here Are the 15 Most Exciting

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NASA’s latest funding of space technology projects includes plenty of 3D printing innovation proposals. Out of a total of 289 US small businesses and 47 research institutions to receive initial funding from the agency’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTRprogram in 2021, 11% will leverage additive manufacturing (AM) technologies. The selections will empower NASA’s missions, including engineering sciences, off-Earth manufacturing, and aeronautics. With projects ranging from interplanetary additive construction to 3D printing thermal protection for space vehicles, AM technology is set to play a key role in enabling the forthcoming era of space exploration and commercialization.

Jim Reuter, Associate Administrator for the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) responsible for NASA’s SBIR and STTR program, said small businesses are facing unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, NASA has accelerated the release of the 2021 program schedule by two months, getting funds into the hands of small businesses sooner. “We hope the expedited funding helps provide a near-term boost for future success,” he concluded.

NASA SBIR/STTR Program. Image courtesy of NASA.

As in previous years, NASA is awarding over $45 million. Each company or research organization will receive up to $125,000 to carry out their innovation for a six-month period, in the case of SBIRs, and 13 months for STTR contracts. Through the program, NASA works with the recipients to advance cutting-edge technologies, and towards the end, companies may submit proposals to subsequent SBIR/STTR opportunities and take in additional funding, based on their progress during Phase I.

More than 30% of the awards will go to first-time NASA SBIR/STTR recipients and the small businesses and research institutions selected are as varied as the technologies they will develop. Hailing from 38 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, they include women-, minority-, and veteran-owned small businesses, as well as Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. According to Program Executive Jason L. Kessler, NASA SBIR and STTR interface with entrepreneurs pushing the boundaries of innovation. This diverse partnership helps the agency expand its reach across the country.

Illustration of the Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot, a conceptual in-space construction system, and lunar rover on the Moon. Image courtesy of NASA

Here are 15 projects that caught our attention, but you can read the full list of SBIR and STTR grants on NASA’s site.

1. 3D Printing Moon Dust

Physical Sciences has partnered with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to investigate and develop a system to print structures of molten lunar regolith that could support human activities on the surface of the Moon. Focused on backing NASA’s “Moon to Mars” campaign, the STTR grant recipients will leverage in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) for both power and construction materials. The proposed Phase I project will address the specific challenges of merging recent technological developments, including “glass printing” using lunar raw materials, into a viable construction tool for the surface of the Moon. The system could lead to the generation of a Phase II prototype design to be built and tested in lunar simulated conditions on Earth. The technical success of the prototype and any follow-up lunar-specific robotic manufacturing platforms will offer an extremely versatile tool to make structures in future planetary exploration campaigns.

2. Metal Foundries in Space

CisLunar Industries is a space technology startup hoping to build metal foundries in space. The key to the technology is the use of debris as an input resource, enabling in-space manufacturing and accelerating space industrialization. As a first-time recipient of NASA’s SBIR grant, CisLunar wants to develop an in-space recycling system that transforms spent components and large structures into repurposed, useful products for on-orbit 3D printing, construction, and refueling. The final output will be a uniform metal rod or ingot as feedstock for use in multiple potential applications, like AM.

3. Extracting Oxygen and Water from Moon Dust

Blueshift will create a system to extract oxygen and water from lunar regolith. The proposed Sintering End Effector for Regolith (SEER) will implement an innovative design that enables indefinite exposure to sintering temperatures and uses Blueshift’s patent-pending concentrated solar thermal control technology for delivering and maintaining temperatures within 1% of the set point. SEER can be incorporated into several future unmanned NASA missions to near-earth asteroids, the lunar surface, Martian moons, Mars orbit, and the Martian surface. Phase I will conclude with a demonstration of sintering a 2D shape into a bed on a lunar regolith simulant.

3D Printing Sensors

Nanovox is the recipient of two SBIR grants this time around. One is for multi-material 3D printing of platform-integrated wireless communication avionics and sensors used in space applications. The second grant will focus on AM technologies to enable cost and schedule reductions for optical systems in CubeSats. Both proposals have potential NASA uses. For example, wireless sensors can be deployed where wires are impossible and used for mobile applications such as bio-monitors for astronauts or live specimens. While more compact and lightweight optics can be used in agency missions, including telescope missions, as well as optical communications.

Binder Jetting with Moon Dust

Masten Space Systems, a California startup building reusable launch vehicles, will collaborate with the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES) on low-energy additive construction for the Moon and Mars. In the past, PISCES worked with NASA SwampWorks on sintering basalt without binders. Although the method has proven successful, the high energy consumed in molds would incur substantial payload costs in space. Instead, the use of a novel binding agent in an aqueous solution that eliminates the problem of high energy input can be a game-changer that allows for the regolith binder mix to be applied towards additive construction without the need for additional heat or consumable molds. The STTR project proposes advancing and validating a novel binder-regolith composite for construction applications, and developing an effective extruder that can withstand the harsh lunar and Martian environments.

Sintered basalt tiles produced by PISCES. Image courtesy of Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES).

3D Printing Shape Memory Alloys

3Dnol, an Ohio-based company that makes AM processes to fabricate Nitinol components, proposed 3D printing shape memory alloys (SMAs) developed by NASA researchers to improve propulsion systems efficiency. The work has potential in applications such as actuators for extreme conditions – like the ones used on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover –, and deployable mechanisms such as solar sails. SMA’s also hold a significant promise in the biomedical implant market on Earth through patient-specific bone implants and self-expanding cardiovascular stents.

3D Printing Nanocarbon-infused Metals

Faraday Technology, along with researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas, will create an in-space manufacturing process to directly print next-generation covetic materials (nanocarbon-infused metals/alloys) in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) via an electro-co-deposition approach to leverage the unique capabilities of the International Space Station (ISS). This work will build on the University’s direct copper printing platform and on Faraday’s electro-co-deposition process activities that include depositing carbon materials into copper. If successful, the results of Phase I and II will set the stage for LEO commercialization of this in-space manufacturing process of covetic materials.

3D Printing Rocket Sensors

RC Integrated Systems proposed the creation of additively manufactured sensors that can support rocket propulsion systems ground tests, capable of withstanding temperatures up to 5000°F. The startup proposed the creation of a Hybrid Additive Manufacturing of Integrated Sensing (HAMIS) System based on 3D printing of passive wireless sensors using high-temperature refractory materials, capable of being bonded to the inner surface of high-temperature gas pipes to measure temperature, pressure, and strain. HAMIS could be incorporated into Stennis Space Center (SSC)’s rocket ground test facility to enhance chemical and advanced propulsion technology development and certification and could support multiple NASA crewed missions to Mars.

Repairing Metal in Space

TGV Rockets is hoping to demonstrate the use of Ultrasonic AM (UAM) for the repair of a damaged structure or to build a new one. According to the Washington D.C.-based company, UAM allows for 3D printing metals in space with very low energy, relatively low pressure, low temperatures, and the flexibility to print a myriad of different metals and metal combinations. The ideal end-product is a UAM ultrasonic weld head that incorporates metal material feed through while on a robotic arm. If everything goes according to plan, the technology might provide off-Earth repairs at 97% of original material properties. NASA researchers are searching for autonomous in-space welding capabilities that could enable on-orbit servicing, assembly, and manufacturing needed for longer space missions such as a lunar or Martian base.

3D Printing Lunar Bricks

Astroport Space Technologies will work with researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio on an integrated induction furnace and nozzle for in-situ 3D printing and landing pad construction using lunar regolith as feedstock. At the system level, basic components include a 3D printer with an induction furnace-nozzle mounted onto a mobility platform for single-step brick production and placement. This STTR grant will help the researchers focus on the integration of the induction furnace and nozzle for regolith brick production, which shows a lot of potential in lunar additive construction.

Rendering of technologies for lunar infrastructure construction using 3D printing. Image courtesy of Astroport Space Technologies.

Closed-Loop Control in WAM

Applied Optimization wants to develop a Wire-Feed AM (WAM) process control solution with defect detection, identification, and correction. Generally focused on mathematical modeling for materials and space science, the Ohio-based business proposes work on a physics-based, closed-loop control of WAM that has direct applications in NASA’s production of low-cost liquid rocket engines and large rockets. Additionally, the ability to correct defects has next-generation applications for in-space repair, on-orbit assembly, and space-based AM structures in lunar and Mars missions.

3D Printing Thermal Shielding

Mainstream Engineering Corporation will team up with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University researchers to use AM for in-situ fabrication of spacecraft thermal protection systems (TPS). The Spacecraft TPS AM (STAM) will consist of a large robotic arm coupled with a direct ink write printhead and integrated UV lamp. It will autonomously fabricate a full-scale conformal TPS in-situ, cured by two sequential reactions activated directly after deposition without a post-process thermal cure. This means, spacecraft experiencing high heating associated with hypersonic flight would benefit from the improvements in heat shield performance and lower costs, which are critical to future missions to the Moon and Mars.

Thermosets in Space

RE3D and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville (UTK) will also use AM on TPS for space vehicles. In this case, the STTR grant awarded will cover an open-source modification to the company’s commercially available and affordable, industrial 3D printer, and in conjunction with the UTK, develop printable, high-temperature hybrid thermoset materials capable of withstanding harsh orbital environments. The methodology is expected to have the potential of expanding the thermoset extrusion material library and significantly decrease the time spent on previous TPS systems.

Simulation and Sensors for Space 3D Printing

Open Additive together with the University of Pittsburgh, suggest the development of an efficient simulation software combined with in-situ sensing capability to be used with laser powder bed fusion (LPBF). The result is expected to provide a robust prediction and monitoring solution for low volume, highly critical parts, capable of detecting defects before a novel complex geometry is created. This could accelerate the qualification of LPBF processes and parts for use on NASA mission projects, such as the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) aboard the Perseverance Rover.

Open Additive and the University of Pittsburgh won a 2021 NASA STTR grant for their Predictive Thermal Simulation for Laser Powder Bed Fusion. Image courtesy of Open Additive

3D Imaging for Rovers

Advanced Scientific Concepts (ASC) suggested using its real-time 3D imaging technology for fast traveling rovers. The business has developed the Global Shutter Flash LiDAR (GSFL) technology that is ideal as a navigation and hazard avoidance sensor for fast-traversing robots and rovers. ASC hopes to complete the concept design in Phase I and demonstrate the technology in Phase II using a robot with a GSFL in a simulated planetary field with rocks as hazards.

Each year, the number of 3D printing projects selected for the SBIR and STTR program increases. In 2019, 3DPrint.com reported that NASA had chosen 10 AM initiatives that moved forward into the first phase, while nine companies were offered funding towards the second phase of their 3D printing projects. This year, the Phase I program alone is witnessing a shift in how many small businesses are leveraging 3D printing for space applications. Each new proposal is innovative, unique and attempts to solve a challenge or limitation of current space manufacturing capabilities. As AM technology matures, it will become critical to the emerging space industry. Learn more about that exciting sector by visiting 3DPrint.com’s Space Zone.

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