3D Printing for Space: Paving the Way for Future Spacecraft

3d printing

Additive manufacturing (AM) is gaining a foothold in the space industry, albeit at a slow pace. Various commercial organisations and agencies are demonstrating and using AM parts in their spacecraft, such as ArianeGroup’s BERTA rocket demonstrator, which is part of the development for Ariane 6, Rocket Lab’s Rutherford engine and Lockheed Martin’s satellite domes. As the technology moves away from prototyping to application, new questions and possibilities arise for (commercial) space organisations and their customers.

One of the main challenges ahead is quality control and post-processing of AM space components. During a panel at Space Tech Expo USA in Pasadena, CA in May 2019, it transpired that post-processing management is seen as the next big step towards full integration of AM parts. “Post-processing is a major step in the whole AM value chain. This is really an important step that essentially adds trust and confidence into the technology”, said moderator Dr Mohsen Seifi, director of global additive manufacturing programs at ASTM International.

Implementing additive manufacturing can be both an opportunity and a challenge, Dr Seifi noted during the panel: “On one side of the spectrum you see innovative start-ups who utilise/innovate the technology, implement and push the boundary on moving forward. On the other side we have large organisations who have a firm structure, [and implementing new technologies such as AM] is very challenging and more difficult. Changing existing specifications is not an easy task and can take a long time. You have to requalify and recertify all those legacy approaches and meet regulatory acceptance that requires significant amount of resources and capital.”

Lockheed Martin Space, which announced the completion of two large 3D-printed satellite domes in 2018, is one of those larger organisations that has experienced the challenges of integrating this new technology into their space division. On the same panel, Dr Zachary Loftus, technical fellow at the prime integrator, pointed out that there is a difference between point-type certification – where you physically test the part and see what goes on the platform – versus what goes on at a global type process qualification, where you are also trying to control people, process and equipment.

“I think there are times and early stages of life-cycle development that are advantageous to kick the tyres on the actual part that is going to fly, but that imposes a recurring qualification test on every single component that gets produced. That gets very expensive, but it is an early way to implement a technology onto a platform. When you talk about development specifications and standards that control people, process and equipment, that’s the next stage where you want to globally deploy a technology. That can either be done through industry standard bodies, or oftentimes with new technologies [the] larger organisations, including Lockheed Martin, will draw upon the body of evidence that exists in their own specifications. Typically, this is a material specification for a process control for feedstock materials as well as a process that controls aspect of people, process and equipment”, said Dr. Loftus.

On the start-up side of the spectrum, Brooklyn-based company Launcher is currently working on the development of a rocket engine using 3D printing. Max Haot, CEO of the organisation, explained at Space Tech Expo what difference additive manufacturing has made to his business: “For us, a small launch vehicle provider, building a high-performance liquid rocket engine would not even be an option or something we could consider with a traditional form of venture funding. This is all thanks to 3D printing.”

Haot describes the development of additive manufacturing as a way to move forward. “The development of the first wave [of additive manufacturing] allowed companies to create lower-performance engines, of smaller size, and [while it was] some sort of compromise, they were able to build a functioning rocket engine. Now we are on the second wave, exploiting copper alloys which are traditionally used for high-performance engines, but now it is done with 3D printing.”

To proove this, the European Space Agency and space debris technology company D-Orbit collaborated with students from Milan’s technical university, Politecnico di Milano, to completely redesign a spacecraft component. This shows that AM can open possibilities even for the youngest and aspiring system engineers of the future.

Launcher is currently working on developing and growing its partnerships with suppliers such as German organisations EOS and AMCM: “They have developed a printer that is able to print a rocket engine that is up to a metre tall. So the size is increasing, the materials are getting better in terms of what you would expect for a liquid rocket engine, and that is only the beginning. All of the start-ups you see today, and even the traditional companies, are using 3D printing as much as they can. For pumps, for combustion chambers in other parts. The affordability and flexibility in design is materially different to what was done before, which was very exclusive and very expensive”, said Haot.

Want to know more about the integration of AM into the space industry? Join us at Space Tech Expo Europe where Dr Mohsen Seifi will moderate a follow-up session on additive manufacturing for space with players from the European space industry, including ArianeGroup and OHB, as well as GE Additive. On the panel Taking the Next Step in Additive Manufacturing for Space: Design, Quality Assurance and High-Volume Production Dr Seifi will take the discussion to the next level. Join us on Thursday 21 November on the event’s Future Mission Enablers day to hear more!