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3D printing parts for space

3D printing parts for space

With the UK government aiming to take 10% of the global space market by 2030, 3D printing parts to construct space faring vehicles and rockets is more important than ever. UK-based Skyrora is trying to meet the demand for cost effective satellite launches with a mixture of traditional and advanced manufacturing, including 3D printing. They are set to launch the sub-orbital Skyrora 1 vehicle by late 2018, paving the way for other projects, such as the three-stage space rocket Skyrora-XL.

3D printing as enhancement

Skyrora’s strategy is to supplement proven rocket technology with 3D printed parts. Skyrora’s Business Development Manager Daniel Smith said:

“Things are moving very rapidly at this point. We’ve already 3D printed various parts of our sub-orbital test vehicle and are in advanced talks about testing our engines here in Britain.”

Skyrora hasn’t revealed which parts they will be printing. However, there are several similar companies using the same technology, and we can look to their printed rocket parts as an indication of Skyrora’s future output.

The ArianeGroup is a joint venture between European aerospace company Airbus and the French engineering company Safran. They have also used this technology to be the first to to create a SWAN divergent nozzle for the Vulcain 2.1 rocket engine. It was the first nozzle of its kind to be manufactured using laser welding and laser metal deposition additive manufacturing technologies. Additional 3D printed components include the gas generator and the oxygen heater for tank pressurisation.

Last year, California-based company Rocket Lab launched its first Electron rocket, containing a 3D printed Rutherford Engine. According to Rocket Lab, the Electron’s Rutherford engine “is the first of its kind to use 3D printing for all primary components.” By doing so, the rocket is lighter, as well as cheaper and faster to build.

3D printing in space

We can 3D print to get to space, what about once we’re there? In 2014 the appropriately named company Made in Space designed the first 3D printer to be installed on the International Space Station (ISS). A demonstration of this technology involved transmitting the design of a ratchet to the ISS, which was then printed on board the station.

Nick Werkheiser, the space station 3D printer program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre said: “For the printer’s final test in this phase of operations, NASA wanted to validate the process for printing on demand, which will be critical on longer journeys to Mars. In less than a week, the ratchet was designed, approved by safety and other NASA reviewers, and the file was sent to space where the printer made the wrench in four hours.”

The most recent and exciting breakthrough is metal casting in space. By 3D printing a mold in castable resin and applying molten metal, astronauts will be to craft metal tools in zero gravity environments. “Casting is super useful because it is a well-known process that people are very comfortable with,” Made in Space President Andrew Rush said. “No one objects to casting like they used to object to 3D printing. We’re comfortable with it from a manufacturing and verification perspective.”

With ease of manufacturing comes ease of expansion, and as humanity develops new and better ways to get to the cosmos, living among the stars could become a reality.

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