As the commercial space landscape continues to expand into a larger private market, 3D printed parts produced here on Earth are finding their way into space. This week, AON3D, a venture capital-backed manufacturer of industrial 3D printers for thermoplastics, revealed that a part printed with one of its machines was received at the International Space Station (ISS) and put to use right away by German European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut and materials scientist Matthias Maurer.
Using ULTEM 9085 resin from Sabic Chemicals and the high-temp industrial 3D printer AON M2+, the Canadian-based company has created a component to explore different methods for blood sample preparation to improve the performance of on-orbit instruments. Centrifuging the blood using the new part separates it into its components by a process known as blood fractionation, a technique used to analyze the elements of samples from astronauts to create new diagnostic information. Printed in just 16 hours, the part will aid in studying the short- and long-term effects of microgravity on the human body.
This type of onboard research is essential to the success of future long-duration space flights. Typical ISS missions, or so-called expeditions, last six months, however a round-trip mission to Mars could last up to three years. Adding more time in space could have other effects on the human body, which is why space agencies are trying to bridge the gap in our knowledge about long-term experiences in space. Research is fundamental to establish the baseline of deep space missions to understand the potential health effects of prolonged spaceflight. Furthermore, printing parts quickly, efficiently, and sustainably could help speed up the research and knowledge of the impact of space.
As part of its ongoing contributions to space exploration, research, and developments, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) asked AON3D to print the centrifuge part. The agency, which was established in 1990 and contributed to the James Webb Space Telescope, Canadarm2 robotic arm, Dextre robotic handyman and the Mobile Base System on the ISS, supports innovation, science, and economic development through investment in space technologies.
For this particular component, the CSA was challenged to design a flight-ready part for the orbiting laboratory. Since the engineering team found that traditional manufacturing methods such as CNC and injection molding would considerably increase prototyping costs and delay the development of end-use parts, it turned to 3D printing. Additive manufacturing allowed for iterative design through rapid in-house prototyping where implementing minor modifications to each design was streamlined. Compared to traditional manufacturing which could take several weeks and multiple production stages, 3D printing on the AON M2+ took just hours to produce the final part.
In addition, materials selection for this application was critical to ensure compliance with NASA’s standards for outgassing. This was a primary design consideration to ensure parts in space meet the required safety standards. According to NASA’s standards for outgassing, ULTEM meets the safety considerations due to low Total Mass Loss (TML) in a vacuum, flame retardant properties, and non-toxicity. Once printed, the part was sent for mechanical testing at CSA before safety review and launch by NASA.
Embarking on 3D printing projects is part of the CSA’s objectives for the future. A few years back, it also awarded a two-year project to Canadian AM company Burloak Technologies to accelerate space applications for AM processes. But following the success of their latest ULTEM centrifuge part with AON3D, the CSA expressed interest in several other projects that require 3D printing to optimize design and manufacturing workflows.
As part of its strategy, the agency has been considering other high-temperature plastics such as PEEK, a material capable of withstanding the extreme heating and cooling cycles in space. In the future, the material will be used to develop the terrestrial prototype of a 3D printed thermoplastic lunar rover as part of the upcoming PEEKbot project, a university-led proposal funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada aiming to develop a rover structure able to survive the lunar night, a two weeks long period during which the Moon’s temperature plummets to -208°F (-130°C).
Originally funded via a successful Kickstarter campaign back in 2016, AON3D found a way to distinguish itself through the manufacture of a materials-agnostic platform. Aside from its myriad of earthly collaborations, the business has been focusing on 3D printing parts for space. In September 2021, the manufacturer secured $11.5 million in funding to fund large-scale production of end-use thermoplastic parts, including the first 3D printed objects to successfully land on the moon. Via a partnership with Pittsburgh-based lunar logistics company Astrobotic, AON3D has printed parts to help Astrobotic’s Peregrine Mission One (PM1) become the first U.S. lunar lander to soft land on the moon since the Apollo missions.
When PM1 touches down on the lunar regolith in late 2022, it will carry space-grade AON3D printed end-use parts, such as fixtures, brackets, and thruster prototypes made out of high-grade thermoplastic materials. This historical milestone for additive manufacturing is one of many as the private space industry continues to expand and create a much-needed supply of space technologies.
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