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Use of 3D printing for the production of spacecraft

3D printed SLA injection models deliver more sophisticated, more consolidated parts that are lighter, cheaper, easier and safer to produce even in mass production.

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Small spacecraft, big mission 

If the company has set itself such an ambitious goal as a revolutionary breakthrough in the field of space exploration, then it is likely to abandon many traditional processes, starting from design and production. Planetary Resources is not only a leader in space exploration, but also at the top in the field of production processes. The company uses 3D Systems technology to optimize parts and spare parts of complex shapes, which reduces the weight of parts, accelerates re-design and reduces costs by combining spare parts into one cast part. 

The mission, set by Planetary Resource, sounds bold: "Create a new paradigm for the use of resources, in which the solar system will be in the sphere of economic influence of mankind."

The devices created by the company for research for low-cost space exploration using robotics are the Arkyd series spacecraft. They are designed to identify near-Earth asteroids for the extraction of water and precious metals. The first demonstration vehicle, the A3R, was launched and put into orbit in 2015. The launch of the second prototype, the A6, is scheduled for spring 2016. Two experimental spacecraft, each about the size of a box of oatmeal, are used to pilot test key technologies, including avionics, control systems, software, and sensors to detect and determine resources lying on asteroids. They lay the foundation for the production of the first serial devices of Planetary Resources, Arkyd 100, 200 and 300 series. Arkyd 100, 200 and 300 are about twice as many prototype devices, their mass is from 11 to 15 kilograms (24-33 pounds). They are small enough to be sent into space with a larger main payload, and then launched into orbit from a space station under favorable conditions.

The place will not be in vain 

Planetary Resources plans that Arkyd spacecraft will subsequently go into mass production, so there is no place for such components in the project that are too heavy or take up a lot of space in the architecture of the device. This is where 3D Systems technology comes to the rescue.

“3D printing helps us combine individual fragments into a single unit,” says Chris Levitsky, president and CEO of Planetary Resources. “Our goal is to make the spacecraft the size of a mobile phone so that the space on it is not wasted.”

A unit that requires special attention is a fuel tank, which in the past occupied a significant percentage of the spacecraft’s volume and often looked like an appendage mounted on the outside of the hull. In the Planetary Resources Arkyd 200 and 300 machines, on the other hand, the patented QuickCast casting models from 3D Systems are used to integrate the propulsion system into the structure of the machine itself. The remaining parts, such as the manifold pipe, pre-nozzle chamber, and route geometry, are also built directly into the structural elements supporting the spacecraft.

Improving the time-tested methodology 

QuickCast is a technique that modernizes traditional casting technologies that have been used for thousands of years and is an excellent solution for working with a complex project. 

Using the processes of 3D Systems, the 3D model is constructed using a stereolithographic (SLA) machine. When the model is complete, fluid is drawn from the workpiece. Then the workpiece is covered with a ceramic shell for casting. After the shell has hardened, it is fired at high temperature to burn the workpiece. Metal is poured into the cavity formed. After cooling, the outer shell breaks, and the finished part is extracted from it.

The main advantages of the QuickCast process include: 

  • Ability to design parts of complex shapes for greater functionality; 
  • Saving a significant amount of time: from computer design to the manufacture of the workpiece - only one day; 
  • Accelerate re-design by eliminating the use of time-consuming tools; 
  • Fewer parts by combining components; 
  • Ability to work with any kind of alloys, including standard aviation metals.

“QuickCast technology opens up possibilities that are not achievable with traditional manufacturing methods, and we also hope to implement plans for direct printing from metal,” said Chris Voorhis, chief engineer of Planetary Resources. “Using 3D Systems’s new products, such as the ProX DMP 320, we can create our titanium parts with even greater detail and precision, and we look forward to sending them into space on our future device.”

Speed and comprehensiveness at low cost 

The use of 3D models for metal casting gives designers the opportunity to achieve a new level of project complexity by creating organic forms without fasteners, clamps, screws and other auxiliary parts necessary when using parts and components manufactured in a traditional way.

“Fuel tanks usually occupy most of the spacecraft’s volume," Levitsky explains. “With 3D printing, we will be able to develop more efficient and organic designs using materials such as titanium to optimize the design for fuel storage. As a result, the device instantly becomes easier, cheaper, safer, and easier to produce in series.”

The full-size model created by 3D Systems and Planetary Resources shows the extent of the use of 3D printing in Arkyd 200 and 300 designs. The sleek model looks deceptively simple. A toroidal titanium fuel tank created using casting blanks on a 3D Systems SLA printer serves as the external structure of the entire spacecraft. Fasteners, cable routing and other elements are built into the project, which reduces the number of parts and adds additional strength and stability. In the hole in the center of the toroid are a thermal laser sensor and communication elements. 

The first fuel tanks designed using 3D printing blanks will be used for the first time on the Arkyd 100, the launch of which is scheduled for late 2016 or early 2017. Arkyd 100 is designed for Earth orbit surveillance and asteroid detection. Following are planned launches of the Arkyd 200, designed to collect scientific data on the physical characteristics of asteroids, and the Arkyd 300, on which a larger propulsion system will be installed for deep space exploration.

The future of aerospace construction 

3D Systems printers play a key role in the development of all products of the Arkyd series, from prototype designs to serial production for an actual spacecraft. 

Planetary Resources uses stereolithography to make prototypes and serial parts like fuel tanks using QuickCast technology, the ProJet 7000 SLA printer for plastic prototypes, and ProX DMP for direct metal printing.

“3D printing allows us to experiment with project concepts and produce serial parts of the best functionality much faster, saving us from the worries associated with traditional manufacturing processes,” says Levicki. “We are moving from subtractive to additive manufacturing. 3D printing is already quite developed, and we hope that it is the future of aerospace construction."

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