NASA Award Fuels 3D Printing in Space Recycling and Next-Gen Heat Shields

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In a significant development, NASA’s SBIR Ignite initiative has granted Phase II awards to 12 small businesses and entrepreneurs. Among the recipients, re:3D and Canopy Aerospace have been chosen for their projects in additive manufacturing (AM).

Texas-based re:3D offers a promising blueprint for sustainability in space. The project, “On-Orbit Additive Manufacturing Using Recycled Waste,” is set to pioneer a recycling system to convert thermoplastic waste generated in orbit into functional, useful objects through 3D printing. This effort is in collaboration with the NASA Gateway Deep Space Logistics (DSL) team. Bianca Rhym, a NASA engineer, described the initiative on LinkedIn as a “trash to treasure adventure.” For enthusiasts of both 3D printing and space exploration, nothing rings truer than the capability to combine AM and sustainability to ensure a compelling vision of the future of orbital care.

Founded in 2013 by NASA veterans Samantha Snabes and Matthew Fiedler, re:3D has consistently blazed trails in sustainability. The company’s flagship 3D printer GigaBot is well-known for its capability to create larger objects from recycled materials. The printer’s combination of scale and affordability has attracted a wide range of industries, from innovative prototyping to art installations. Rooted in an open-source philosophy, re:3D continually engages with its community to refine and improve its products, emphasizing its dedication to making industrial-grade 3D printing accessible and sustainable for all.

re:3D GigaBot 3D printer. Image courtesy of re:3D

While re:3D is laser-focused on sustainable 3D printing, Canopy’s project has not gone unnoticed by NASA. Following the award’s announcement, Chicago-based Canopy is moving to Phase II of its “Reusable Heatshields Additive Manufacturing (RHAM)” platform. This innovative 3D printing system streamlines the creation of reusable thermal protection system (TPS) tiles, combining novel material formulations and binder jetting processes to produce highly insulative ceramics and advanced heat treatments. According to Canopy, NASA wants more businesses working in low Earth orbit (LEO) and has a Commercial LEO Destinations (CLDs) program. They need a better way to make protective heat tiles for spaceships. Right now, they use an old method from the Shuttle program, which is slow and requires much hands-on work. They can only make about two tiles per week for each worker.

To fill this gap, Canopy proposed the development of a new RHAM platform that allows rapid production of reusable TPS tiles with “digitally defined tailorability.” Using its expertise in thermal protection materials, Canopy’s RHAM innovations involve cutting-edge 3D printing techniques and advanced heat treatments to create strong ceramics. After laying the groundwork in Phase I, Phase II will elevate RHAM to a level prepped for tests with both NASA and commercial space entities. Beyond NASA, the RHAM system holds promise for commercial space missions and defense applications, aligning with projects like SpaceX’s Starship and NASA’s Lockheed-contracted Orion capsule.

Additively manufactured ceramics. Image courtesy of Canopy Aerospace.

Space pioneers

NASA’s SBIR Ignite initiative, part of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, aims to support and encourage innovative companies in the aerospace sector. Unlike traditional programs, SBIR Ignite focuses on new commercial opportunities, providing funding and assistance to make these technologies more appealing to investors. In 2022, the program started with Phase I awards given to 12 businesses with promising yet risky technology ideas, ranging from climate solutions to recycling methods. After completing Phase I, these businesses, including re:3D and Canopy, are moving to Phase II. In this phase, they can receive up to $850,000 to develop their prototypes.

Among the companies recognized by NASA’s Phase II SBIR Ignite initiative are Ampaire for hybrid aircraft powertrains, Cecilia Energy’s approach to converting waste plastic to hydrogen, and Crystal Sonic‘s cost-efficient solution for space photovoltaics. H3X Technologies, Outpost Technologies, and Solestial have also been recognized for advancements in aircraft electric propulsion, cargo transportation, and space solar arrays, respectively. StormImpact, Terrafuse, Trans Astronautica, and Turion Space will focus on their work on electrical system resilience, wildfire risk predictions, space debris remediation, and CubeSat technology. These companies, located across the US, represent the diverse range of projects the SBIR Ignite initiative aims to support.

“We are proud that all 12 of the small businesses are continuing with our program and persevering through the tough realities of early-stage research and development,” said Jason L. Kessler, an executive for NASA’s SBIR/STTR program at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “These awards foster a unique range of technologies that we hope will have positive impacts on the lives of everyday Americans in the future.”

Charting the future

SBIR Ignite isn’t limited to funding these projects; it opens up many opportunities for innovators to connect and work together. The program invites newcomers through initiatives like the Space Startup Ecosystem Digital Community and eclectic networking events. In its first year, 75% of the awardees had not received a NASA SBIR award before starting their Phase I projects.

“Bringing new entrepreneurs and ideas into NASA is a focal point for our program, and we’re excited that SBIR Ignite has been able to serve as a testing ground for us to appeal to small businesses in new ways,” said Quenton Bonds, entrepreneurial engagement lead for NASA’s SBIR/STTR program at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt in Maryland. “We’re optimistic that the experiments we’re running through SBIR Ignite will provide insights that will improve the impact of the whole SBIR/STTR program.”

Innovators out there, take note: the 2023 SBIR Ignite Phase I application opened on August 1, 2023, and will close at 5 PM EDT on September 21, 2023.

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