3D Printing Used for Space Travel By 4 Big Companies

As the race continues for individuals to get into space and beyond, companies are continuously coming up with new ideas to help make this happen. One area of technology that’s being utilized quite a lot at the moment is 3D printing. Many firms are turning to the likes of 3D printing in building their spacecraft models including Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. Contrary to what people may think, only 555 people have ever been to space, and these companies are some of the many who want to change that.

George Whitesides is CEO and President of Virgin Galactic, and he said, “We need far more people to experience space and to bring that planetary perspective back down to earth, and back down to their communities. We have a lot of challenges facing our planet, and I have a firm belief that the perspective from space will help us solve many of those challenges.”

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The first of Virgin Galactic’s spaceship’s to be built is called the VSS Unity which is currently being used in a test flight program. They are also working alongside DMG MORI who is a leading machine tools manufacturer with a very useful hybrid 3D printer to offer. It combines subtractive techniques (i.e. milling) and an additive deposition to form metal shapes. By Virgin Galactic employing the use of this printer, the company can cut down the manufacturing time for their engines down from months to weeks.

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Blue Origin is one of the other major players in this field.  This company was formed by Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos and like Virgin Galactic; its primary goal is also to take the average Joe into space. The company’s also been using 3D printing techniques to assist them in doing so. President of Blue Origin, Rob Meyerson, confirmed that their spacecraft has over 400 additively manufactured parts. Testing of their latest engine, the BE-4 is currently being carried out the ad is the largest engine the company has ever produced. They have taken on 3D printing to reduce significantly the amount of time taken to manufacture certain parts and so far, it seems to be working very well.

Resistojets have also been making their way into the field lately, largely due to SSTL. These are thrusters that work by using electricity to heat a propellant then recirculating it through narrow channels and apply an electric potential to it. While traditional resistor-jets are OK to work in temperatures up to around 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit, they are unable to cope with anything hotter.  But, the Very-High-Temperature Resistojet (VHTR) can operate at temperatures up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. To demonstrate its capabilities a 3D printed thruster (SSTL-300) was able to reduce the amount of fuel needed by around 10kg or increase the potential change in velocity by up to 50%. The 3D printer that was used to create the VHTR prototype was a Concept Laser M2 Cushing.

Sir Martin Sweeting is the founder of SSTL and is seen as one of the UK’s most influential engineers who helped create the small satellite industry. Small satellites are easier to facilitate, and access and nano satellites can be deployed after the main mission. They evolved significantly since they were first introduced in the 80’s in both capability and cost effectiveness. Sweeting states, “This is fundamentally changing the economics of space for the civil and defense and security sectors. This includes NASA’a very own PhoneSat project which uses Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) electronics.

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