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New NASA Funding Ignites 25 3D Printing Projects in Space Exploration

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NASA has selected 300 proposals for this year’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Phase I awards. Following the trend of previous years, 3D printing projects play a significant role among the awardees. A notable 25 projects have been identified in line with this trend, focusing on either developing new additive manufacturing (AM) processes or harnessing existing 3D printing technologies to support various NASA applications, missions, space exploration systems, and aeronautics. With a total agency investment of $45 million, each proposal team will receive $150,000 to demonstrate the merit and feasibility of their groundbreaking innovations.

The steady growth of 3D printing-related proposals is evident. In 2019, there were 10 AM-related companies selected for Phase I awards, whereas, in 2022, the number had already increased to 24 projects leveraging the power of 3D printing. This trend showcases the ongoing commitment to advancing AM technologies within the aerospace industry.

Each proposal team selected for this year’s SBIR and STTR awards will receive $150,000 to bring their visionary ideas to life, thanks to NASA’s $45 million investment. This Phase I contracts empowers small businesses and researchers, with SBIR contracts lasting six months and STTR contracts extending for 13 months in partnership with research institutions. Among these projects, here is an impressive lineup of seven of cutting-edge 3D printing initiatives:

3D Printed Hybrid Propulsion System for Smallsat Deorbit

Veteran-owned HyBird Space Systems, a two-person company based in Spanaway, Washington, is developing RT-5X, a retrobraking propulsion system for spacecraft deorbiting. The 3D printed RT-5X will focus initially on deorbit of spacecraft in low Earth orbit (LEO). It will help NASA in its efforts to mitigate the potential risk of damage to its spaceflight programs from orbital debris – humanmade objects in Earth orbit that no longer serve a useful purpose. The company hopes its technology becomes a low-cost, preventative debris solution that provides controlled re-entry and may benefit other small satellite developers.

Miniature Lightweight, 3D Printable, Optical Dual Contact Force and Temperature Sensor for Dexterous End Effectors

Skillful robotic manipulation is crucial for establishing a sustainable space infrastructure, and California-based Intelligent Optical Systems aims to advance this technology. They propose a novel end effector sensor that simultaneously measures contact force and temperature using a luminescent dye blended into a polymer. This sensor can be 3D printed and integrated into robotic systems, expanding the range of sensorized end effectors. The technology has applications across any agency mission where a robot rather than a human in space could perform a task. Beyond NASA, this innovation has potential in the growing general-purpose robot market, opening possibilities for more versatile and human-like robotic labor.

Wire-laser metal 3D printed bearings for extreme environments

Worcester, Massachusetts Multiscale Systems aims to address the challenges of exploring outer planets, subsurface oceans, and Venus by leveraging wire laser metal 3D printing. The team will use this innovative approach to print bearings in a multi-material alloy that can withstand extreme environmental conditions, such as cryogenic temperatures, corrosive atmospheres, and high pressures. This solution offers the advantages of lightweighting, design complexity, and the ability to create alloy composites with desirable properties like high ductility, controllable thermal expansion, and corrosion resistance. The ultimate goal is to manufacture components to customer specifications, benefiting both NASA missions to Venus, Callisto, Enceladus, Europa, Titan, and potential applications in the renewable energy sector, specifically enhanced geothermal systems and geothermal heat pumps.

Superconducting Magnetic Shielding Using Additive Manufacturing

Applied Nanotech, a women- and HUBZone-owned Texas business, will explore novel approaches for improving the performance of X-ray detectors used in space exploration. These detectors called transition edge sensors (TES), are very sensitive to magnetic fields, which can affect their accuracy. To solve this problem, Applied Nanotech is developing a new way to shield these detectors from magnetic fields using an additive manufacturing technique. They will apply a special layer onto a material that can block magnetic fields. This research has potential applications in various NASA missions, such as studying astrophysics, Earth science, heliophysics, and planetary science. The techniques developed in this project can also be used in other fields, like improving electronics packaging and quantum computing.

Nonplanar Spaceborne Additively Manufactured Electronics

Micro-Precision Technologies (MPT), in partnership with the Center for Advanced Microelectronics Manufacturing (CAMM) at Binghamton University, is developing a process to create special electronic circuits for use in space. They combine MPT’s thick film ceramic technology with CAMM’s aerosol jet printing technology. This mix allows them to make circuits on curved surfaces and meet the strict standards for space missions. These circuits will be used in space and on Earth where traditional circuit boards are too big or don’t work well, including NASA missions to explore other planets and operate the International Space Station (ISS), medical devices, and defense industries.

Space Qualified, 3D-Printed, Electronic Assembly Demonstration (SPEAD) Printed Circuit Boards

Nanohmics and Professor Maggie Chen from Texas State University are working together to develop unique printed circuit boards (PCBs) for use in space. These PCBs will be created using advanced 3D printing techniques and conductive inks. The goal is to make PCBs that can withstand the extreme conditions of space, like temperature changes, shocks, and radiation. In the project’s first phase, they will create prototype PCBs using flexible materials and test them with standard electronic components. These new PCBs will be flexible and compact, allowing more efficient use of space in future space missions.

High-Reliability Interconnects for Advanced Integrated Circuits in Additive Manufactured Electronics

This proposed project aims to improve the durability and ruggedness of products made using Additively Manufactured Electronics (AME) technology. Sciperio and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach want to design reliable interconnects (connections between different parts in electronic circuits) that can withstand temperature changes. The team will use advanced 3D printing equipment to produce and test these designs rapidly. Potential applications include satellite electronics, wearable monitoring devices, and biomedical devices.

NASA’s SBIR and STTR awards for small businesses. Image courtesy of NASA.

Other NASA-awarded initiatives in 2023 hope to revolutionize lunar construction, including reinforced landing pads, improved methodologies for safer landings and takeoffs, high-power microwave technology for construction activities, and the innovative Brickbot system for extracting regolith to create bricks for landing pads and structures. Other projects include portable in-space inspection machines for 3D printed parts, in-situ extraction of resources for additive construction off-Earth, and a 3D printed ceramic thermal management system for space nuclear applications.

Here is the list of other 3D printing-related initiatives that received Phase I SBIR and STTR awards this year:

SBIR

Integrated Computational Materials Engineering (ICME) for In-Space and Extraterrestrial Surface Metal Welding and Joining by CFD Research Corporation

In-space X-ray Analyzer by Advanced Analyzer Labs

Processing and Extraction of Metal Oxide Slag on the Moon by Lunar Resources

Additively Manufactured Ceramic Heat Pipes for Space Nuclear Reactors by Advanced Cooling Technologies

Flight-Weight Cryogenic Cam Butterfly Valve and Ultra-High Pressure Variable Flow Control Valve – 8-inch Floating Piston Valve by C-Suite Services

Cellular Optimization of Additively Produced Mirror Substrates for In-space Imaging by Cornerstone Research Group

Rapidly Configurable Mold and Cavity System by Muse Engine

Wideband Inorganic Freeform Optics by Nanovox

Additive manufacturing of robust, nonplanar electrical interconnects by Optomec Design

Robotic High-Emissivity Surface Treatments by Polaronyx

Improving Ion Engine Optics Through Additive Manufacturing by Quadrus Advanced Manufacturing

Additively Manufacture Hyperfine Optomechanical Laser Discipline (AM-HOLD) Module by Vapor Cell Technologies

STTR

Novel Construction of Lunar Landing Pad Reinforcement Structures by Linc Research and the University of Alabama

Regolith Overburden Structures on the Moon: Design and ConOps for Emplaced Protection by SpaceFactory and Michigan Technological University

Resistance Welding of Carbon Fiber Reinforced Thermoplastic Composites for Repurposable Applications by Vista Engineering and Consulting and the University of Alabama at Birmingham

Processing of Lunar Regolith for Construction Activities via Multiple-Use Microwave Sources by X-Hab 3D and Pennsylvania State University

High Power Density Pressurized Monolithic Zirconia Electrolyzers by Alternative Energy Materials and Washington State Unversity

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