NASA’s Futuristic Projects: 3D Printed Spacesuits and Micro-Robot Swarms

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Seeking visionary innovations that could propel space exploration, NASA has selected more than a dozen early-stage studies to evaluate technologies to support future aeronautics and off-Earth missions. Funded by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, the new proposals will receive a total of $5.1 million destined to foster the work of 17 researchers from nine states.

The selected projects include 12 new Phase I studies and five Phase II awards that will allow researchers to continue their prior work on innovative concepts. Still in the early stages of development, the projects are not considered official NASA missions. However, Phase I fellows will each receive $175,000 for a nine-month study, and Phase II fellows will receive $600,000 each for study over two years.

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program nurtures visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions.

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program nurtures visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions. Image courtesy of NASA/NIAC.

Commenting on the awards, astronaut and recently sworn in NASA Deputy Administrator, Pam Melroy, had this to say about the proposals: “As we set our sights on ever more challenging destinations for exploration with humans and robots, innovative ideas and future thinking will be critical to helping us reach new milestones. Concepts like those being studied with this new round of NIAC funding are helping us expand the scope of the possible so we can make it a reality.”

Although the pioneering initiatives could have a leading role in future space exploration, two of them are of particular interest to since they involve additive manufacturing (AM) technologies. The projects include a swarm of 3D printed swimming micro-robots that could explore ocean worlds and additively manufactured custom spacesuits for Mars exploration.

3D printing a spacesuit on the go?

The space agency awarded a NIAC Phase 1 grant worth $175,000 to Bonnie Dunbar of Texas A&M University in College Station for the “Spacesuit Digital Thread: 4.0 Manufacture of Custom High-Performance Spacesuits for the Exploration of Mars” project.

Dunbar, an engineer and retired NASA astronaut, seeks to investigate the viability of manufacturing custom, cost-effective, high-performance exploration spacesuits for Mars. The primary aim of this project is to determine how the digital thread (DT)–-a data-driven architecture that links together information generated from across the product life cycle––can be used to develop a digital manufacturing stream that will provide any sized or shaped crewmember (or future tourist) with an optimized Extravehicular Activity (EVA) spacesuit.

For the proposal, Dunbar will evaluate AM as one of the tools that could help manufacture the spacesuits rapidly and cost-effectively. Aside from 3D printing, she believes other technologies could make the cut, like human body 3D scanning, automated 3D garment manufacturing, digital twins, Computer-Aided Design (CAD), and model-based engineering.

The vision is a “digital human scan to digital design/analyses to robotic manufacture,” reads the project abstract. “This approach would address several problems facing deep space travel, in particular, the ability to rapidly design and manufacture EVA spacesuits which are best suited to the anthropometrics of the individual crewmember (male and female) in any gravitational environment.”

Graphic depiction of the Spacesuit Digital Thread concept.

Graphic depiction of the Spacesuit Digital Thread concept. Image courtesy of Bonnie Dunbar.

Looking forward to the 2030’s future on Mars, Dunbar envisions her custom-made EVA suits as a solution to planned missions with spacewalks nearly every day. Thereby, these suits need to protect the crew from the extreme environment of space while at the same time providing the mobility required to effectively perform both engineering and scientific exploration tasks outside of the habitat or the spacecraft.

Having flown on five Space Shuttle missions herself, Dunbar understands the limitations and challenges of spacesuits. This is why she proposes identifying all critical components of a spacesuit, current manufacturing technologies available to develop them, and the challenges of in-situ fabrication. Then the plan is to create an original DT model for future spacesuit development and operational support.

In the abstract, Dunbar highlights that during the Space Shuttle Program, a total of 18 suits were built to support nearly 200 astronauts. Yet, not all of them could fit into, or function in the suit, and many crewmembers experienced shoulder injuries, pressure points, fingernail loss, and nearly a 50% loss of effective strength due to the pressure resistance of the suit. Instead, she plans to advocate for a return to custom EVA suits manufactured for all early spaceflight crewmembers before the Space Shuttle Program (that includes missions like Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab). If her plan works, we could witness additive manufactured spacesuits on Martian soil based on digital files in a couple of decades.

Exploring space with 3D printed swimming micro-robots 

From NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Ethan Schaler was one of five researchers selected to receive Phase II grants in 2022. A robotics mechanical engineer, Schaler is skilled in 3D printing and chose to use it to develop a SWIM (short for Sensing with Independent Micro-swimmers) system. It consists of scores of 100 millimeter-scale, 3D printed swimming microrobots (or micro-swimmers) equipped with chip-based technology Micro-Electro-Mechanical System (MEMS) sensors, propelled by miniature actuators, and wirelessly communicating with ultrasound waves.

SWIMs are designed to access ocean worlds, like Saturn’s moons, Titan and Enceladus, or Jupiter’s sixth satellite, known as Europa, whose liquid oceans beneath kilometers of icy crust are some of the most likely locations beyond Earth to harbor life.

According to Schaler, to access these aquatic environments, NASA is developing and maturing numerous ocean-access mission concepts, including thermo-mechanical drilling robots, better known as SESAME (Scientific Exploration Subsurface Access Mechanism for Europa). However, SWIM dramatically expands the capabilities of SESAME-class ocean-access robotic missions and significantly increases their likelihood of detecting evidence of habitability.

In the abstract, Schaler explains that his team identified and refined a viable millimeter-sized SWIM robot prototype design during the first phase. Phase II will mature the technical feasibility of SWIM for scientific missions at the ice-ocean interface of ocean worlds by testing the 3D printed robot prototypes in a test tank and demonstrating that the hardware, mobility, and controls work.

Graphic depiction of SWIM- Sensing with Independent Micro-swimmers.

Graphic depiction of SWIM- Sensing with Independent Micro-swimmers. Image courtesy of Ethan Schaler.

The micro-swimmers are to be deployed individually or as a swarm from a single SESAME robot mothercraft, which has limited mobility once reaching the ocean-ice interface. Instead, SWIM enables active sampling of ocean water beyond the reach of the SESAME robot (increasing the chances of detecting biomarkers). Together these capabilities will help scientists better understand the alien ocean’s composition and habitability.

Aside from these two projects involving 3D printing, NIAC has selected other visionary ideas for its program, including a novel design for a crewed spacecraft that provides more protection from radiation on long journeys than conventional crew modules; a concept for a completely silent electric airplane, and an idea for a spacecraft that could harness the Sun’s heat to propel it out of the solar system at unprecedented speeds. We can’t wait to hear more about unconventional ways humans can explore uncharted alien worlds.

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