A very special rocket, Electron, was launched on May 25 from New Zealand, which blasted into space ushering in a new era of space exploration. Not only was this rocket the first one to have been launched from a private site, it also happened to have the first ever 3D printed rocket engine. Indeed, the rocket’s engine was made almost entirely using 3D printing technology. Some reports have termed this rocket as the ‘first 3D printed rocket to go into space’ but it is in fact, not the case. Rather, the launching of this special rocket highlights the fact that the space industry is taking rapid prototyping and 3D printing as an important manufacturing technique.
According RocketLab, the US based company behind the Electron rocket; it took 24 hours to print out the engine, providing performance benefits and efficiency compared to other systems. Not a lot of details are out there about the kind of 3D printed components used for this rocket. It is most likely that many of them were designed to be of minimal weight while not sacrificing structural performance. Some other may have been specially optimized for efficient flow of fluids. The advantages of reduced weight and the possibilities of creating complex designs are why 3D printing gained traction as a manufacturing method for space exploration. 3D printing is expected to have some significant applications in space research and exploration, changing how we explore space dramatically.
In order to produce shapes of highly complicated geometries, additive manufacturing is the set of technologies of choice. Lattice structures, for example, are produced in such a way that they weigh less but are just as strong as other similar solid materials. Additive manufacturing therefore creates opportunity to manufacture lightweight and specialized parts that were impossible to make. Moreover, 3D printing also proves to be a more economically efficient method compared to traditional manufacturing methods.
One of the examples of taking additive manufacturing to the extreme is Boeing’s microlattice- it produces structures that are made 99.9 percent air, but are still mechanically sound. Even though this is a very specialized use of 3D printing, but even weight reduction of a few percent in spacecrafts and aircrafts can give major benefits through less use of fuel.
The technology of 3D printing and rapid prototyping work best in order to produce structures that are relatively small and intricately structured, rather than simple large structures. This is because the latter has higher processing and material costs that would outweigh any advantage that 3D printing might give. A redesigned nozzle, for example, can enhance the mixing of fuel inside an engine which can give better efficiency. If the surface area of a heat shield is increased using a patterned surface instead of a flat one, the heat transfer will be more efficient. This ultimately reduces the chances of overheating to a great degree.
Rapid prototyping and 3D printing are also helpful in reducing the amount of material waste in manufacturing. This is of great importance because components specialized for space tends to be highly expensive and rare materials. Rather than building from innumerable assembled parts 3D printing can produce entire systems in one go. An example of that would be NASA’s use of it to reduce the components of one of their rocket injectors. The number of components was previously 115, and after using 3D printing it reduced to just two. Additionally, 3D printers can easily create parts in a smaller number, according to the needs of the space industry without making expensive tools first.
It is most likely that 3D printers would make their way into space eventually where it is logistically impossible to keep a large number of spare parts handy. It is also difficult to send replacements to a spacecraft hundreds and thousands of kilometers away from earth. The International Space Station already houses a 3D printer, therefore if something is out of order, engineers can send a replacement design to the spacecraft and the astronauts can print it out on the spacecraft. The 3D printer currently on board deals only with plastic components; hence it is used mostly for making replacements for low performance parts. However, there has been a rise in metal 3D printing and other materials; hence we are likely to see an increase in the use of those technologies in space. The day is not far when astronauts can produce their own food and biological materials in space.
Looking further into the future, human kind could fare well in colonies outside of earth with 3D printing by their side. The moon does not have much to offer when it comes to traditional building materials. Recently though, the European Space Agency has proven that the production of bricks made of lunar dust can be powered by solar energy. Researchers are further developing this idea and trying to come up with complete 3D printed buildings specialized for the moon.
In order to make these applications a reality, more research needs to be conducted on advanced processes and materials so that the manufactured components can withstand the extreme conditions in space. Issues like the lack of gravity can be addressed by testing out components in microgravity or low gravity environments. Using powders and liquids in these environments, human kind can develop 3D printer inks that can help build structures in space.
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