How 3D printing is enabling the next generation of space exploration – Professional Engineering (subscription)

The Ariane 6 launcher will propel the next generation of satellites into Earths orbit, and could take future European astronauts towards destinations unknown.

The rocket is designed to carry a variety of payloads ranging from satellites to science experiments and is set to fulfil its first contracts in 2020, when it will help launch the first parts of the OneWeb global internet network.

Ariane 6 is 63m tall and 5.4m in diameter, and when its finished it will weigh at least 530,000kg. It will be capable of carrying payloads of 26 tonnes into orbit. But all that power doesnt come cheap.

The rocket, which is being built by Airbus Safran Launchers, comes with a hefty price tag: 3.6bn of development, plus an estimated 90m per launch.

Yet our demand for new launches is only going to go up, and so its important to bring down the cost of making these rockets. Thats where 3D printing can help.

The internal parts of a rocket have to withstand tremendous forces and extreme heat, and they need to be reliable. Thats particularly true of the injection head, one of the core elements of the propulsion module.

This complex part feeds the fuel mixture into the combustion chamber of the rocket, where it is ignited to generate thrust. Traditionally, its made up of 248 separate components which are produced and assembled in a series of steps including casting, brazing, welding and drilling.

However, the nature of those processes can introduce weak points thats risky at the best of times, but particularly so when thousands of kilograms of flammable fuel are passing through them. Its also time-consuming and expensive more than 8000 cross holes have to be drilled into copper sleeves, which are then precisely screwed on to each of the 122 to injector elements where hydrogen is mixed with oxygen.

For Ariane 6, the team working on the rocket decided to take a different approach. Theyre using 3D printing to create the complex injection head in a single piece, in conjunction with 3D printing technology supplier EOS.

Only additive manufacturing can combine integrated functionality, lightweight construction, a simpler design, and shorter lead times in a single component, said Steffen Beyer, head of production technology in the materials and processes department of the Ariane 6 project.

They used a heat-resistant and corrosion-resistant nickel-based alloy, and were able to 3D print it into the desired shape. Instead of 248 parts, its now just one. Thats not the only benefit the new nozzle is twice as fast to make, 25 per cent lighter, and it can all be built in one location.

Theres actually a 3D printer in space. NASA are testing the technology on the International Space Station with a view to using it on longer missions to Mars and beyond.

The hope is that 3D printing will remove the need for the kind of high-pressure improvisation that occurred on the Apollo 13 mission, when the crew had to cobble together a solution to a technical problem from the odds and ends they could find on the ship. In the future, theyll be able to print whatever they need.

Last June, the 3D printer on the International Space Station received a CAD design file transmitted from earth, and got to work. Four hours later, it had printed a tool a 5-inch long ratchet wrench comprised of 104 layers of plastic.

We wanted to work this just like we would for tools that the astronauts will 3-D print and use on the station, said Niki Werkheiser, who manages the 3D printing program from NASAs Marshall Space Flight centre in Huntsville, Alabama. This wrench will not be used in space, but what if it were a tool the crew needed? We are breaking new ground not only in the way we manufacture in space but also in the way we operate and approve space hardware that is built in space, rather than launched from Earth.

The wrench is now back on earth, where it will be tested to see if there are any differences in its structure caused by being printed in a microgravity environment. NASA are also exploring whether certain objects might actually be easier to print in space than they are on Earth because of gravity.

3D printing is being used to build the rockets that will take the next generation of satellites into space. As well as Ariane 6, New Zealand-based Rocket Lab have launched a 3D printed rocket this year.

Additive manufacturing will also be used to make those satellites more quickly and efficiently too Boeing and SpaceX are among the companies exploring this. Beyond that, the possibilities are almost endless. If you can transmit a file to the station as quickly as you can send an email, it opens up endless possibilities for all the types of things that you can make from CubeSat components to experiment hardware, said Werkheiser. We even may be able to make objects that previously couldn't even be launched to space.

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How 3D printing is enabling the next generation of space exploration - Professional Engineering (subscription)

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