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Daring AM: Prepare to 3D Print in Space

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NASA is laying the groundwork for the future of space 3D printing. Producing spacecraft, rocket components, advanced materials, and larger structures directly in orbit will revolutionize traditional off-Earth manufacturing. As a result, space agencies are taking a proactive approach to prepare for space manufacturing, recognizing its potential to transform the space industry while driving economic growth on Earth. Space 3D printing, in particular, has the potential to advance the frontiers of science and technology, reduce launch costs, increase mission flexibility, and enable the creation of on-demand parts and tools, making space exploration more efficient and sustainable.

Last week, the agency unveiled the creation of a consortium focused on making in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM) capabilities a routine part of space architectures and mission lifecycles. The agency also released a new 3D printing superalloy called GRX-810 which has been tested by 3D Systems and awarded Texas State University a grant to develop lunar concrete for additive building on the moon. Here’s the breakdown.

How COSMIC will commandeer space manufacturing

NASA announced the creation of the COnsortium for Space Mobility and ISAM Capabilities (COSMIC), a nationwide coalition that will invigorate the domestic ISAM capability. Led by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) and operated by The Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded R&D center (FFRDC), COSMIC will enable the transition of ISAM to utilization so that it becomes a routine part of space architectures and mission lifecycles.

“NASA, government agencies, and industry have invested in robotic ISAM technologies for decades,” said STMD’s Technology Demonstrations Director Trudy Kortes. “Still, it is rare for modern satellites to be designed and built with things like grappling, refueling, and other robotic repairs in mind. We want to change that.”

Through a range of capabilities, ISAM can enable new mission paradigms and extend spacecraft life. For example, in-space servicing encompasses activities including spacecraft repair, refueling, relocation, and retrofitting, while assembly and manufacturing include abilities like 3D printing and assembling components in space. Together, these capacities can enable a more sustainable, robust, and enduring space ecosystem.

Detail shot of the On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing 1 (OSAM-1) autocapture test bed in Maryland, on Feb 23, 2023.

Detail shot of the On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing 1 (OSAM-1) autocapture test bed. Image courtesy of NASA/Michael Guinto

The consortium builds upon technology maturation and demonstration efforts across sectors, including NASA’s On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM) missions, the joint Defense Aerospace Projects Research Agency, and SpaceLogistics effort Robotic Servicing of Geostationary Satellites/Mission Robotic Vehicle (RSGS/MRV) and other endeavors that align with the ISAM National Strategy and National ISAM Implementation Plan released in 2022, providing an opportunity for collaboration among government, industry, and academia to pursue common goals in ISAM capability development.

A star alloy is born

A team of researchers from NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and The Ohio State University revealed a new 3D printable alloy designed for extreme environments in a peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Nature. Called GRX-810, NASA’s groundbreaking new laser powder bed fusion super alloy has already been successfully verified by 3D Systems.

Macro Photographs of 3D Print of NASA logo made out of 3D printable new alloy GRX-810.

Macro Photographs of 3D Print of NASA logo made out of 3D printable new alloy GRX-810. Image courtesy of NASA/ Jordan Salkin

“This superalloy has the potential to dramatically improve the strength and toughness of components and parts used in aviation and space exploration,” said Tim Smith of NASA Glenn and lead author of the paper.

Smith and his Glenn colleague Christopher Kantzos invented GRX-810 using computer modeling and a laser 3D printing process that fused metals, layer-by-layer, to create the new alloy. GRX-810 is an oxide dispersion-strengthened alloy, which means tiny particles containing oxygen atoms spread throughout the alloy to enhance its strength.

Such alloys are excellent candidates for building aerospace parts for high-temperature applications, like those inside aircraft and rocket engines, because they can withstand harsher conditions before reaching their breaking points. Current state-of-the-art 3D printed superalloys can withstand temperatures up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Compared to those, GRX-810 is twice as strong, over 1,000 times more durable, and twice as resistant to oxidation.

3D Systems verifies the performance of NASA’s new super alloy GRX-810. Image courtesy of 3D Systems.

To verify its performance, 3D Systems used its direct metal printing (DMP) platform, the DMP Factory 500, to process and test the elevated temperature mechanical properties of GRX-810. According to the company, the material demonstrates exceptional mechanical properties and resistance to extreme temperatures, making it ideal for aerospace applications.

3D Systems VP of aerospace and defense, Michael Shepard, explains: “The successful verification of the reported NASA GRX-810 properties is a testament to the incredible potential of this new super alloy, not only in its performance but in its capability to be produced repeatably. In addition, our work with this material provided by NASA underscores our commitment to pushing the boundaries of additive manufacturing and enabling the production of next-generation aerospace components.”

Described as one of the most successful technology patents NASA Glenn has ever produced, this major achievement could be an ideal candidate for future use in critical components such as rocket engines, turbine blades, and exhaust nozzle components.

PrintStone

Texas State University has received a $50,000 grant to develop CaerusCrete further, a technology concept that uses available resources on the moon as a building material. Awarded by NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR), the funds will foster partnerships between the university and small businesses to maximize the potential for the new technology.

Team at Texas State University receives NASA grant for CaerusCrete.

Team at Texas State University receives NASA grant for CaerusCrete. Image courtesy of Texas State University

Originating as an undergraduate student project, CaerusCrete explores the idea that alkali activation mechanisms could bind granular materials found on-site, such as lunar regolith, to gain sufficient strength for structural use. As we have explored in past articles, space missions have tight limitations on what they can carry, leading to in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) as a leading concept for future space exploration and survival.

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