For hobbyists and makers, 3D printing expands creative possibilities. For specialised engineers, it’s also key to next-generation spacecraft design.
If you want to see science fiction at work, visit a modern machine shop, where 3D printers create materials in just about any shape you can imagine. NASA is exploring the technique, known as additive manufacturing when used by specialised engineers, to build rocket engines as well as potential outposts on the Moon and Mars. Nearer in the future is a different milestone. NASA’s Perseverance Rover, which lands on the Red Planet on 18 February 2021, carries 11 metal parts made with 3D printing.
Instead of forging, moulding or cutting materials, 3D printing relies on lasers to melt powder in successive layers to give shape to something. Doing so allows engineers to play with unique designs and traits such as making hardware lighter, stronger or responsive to heat or cold.
“It’s like working with papier-mâché,” said Andre Pate, the group lead for additive manufacturing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “You build each feature layer by layer, and soon you have a detailed part.”
Curiosity, Perseverance’s predecessor, was the first mission to take 3D printing to the Red Planet. It landed in 2012 with a 3D printed ceramic part inside the rover’s oven like Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. NASA has since continued to test 3D printing for use in spacecraft to make sure the reliability of the parts is well understood.
As “secondary structures,” Perseverance’s printed parts wouldn’t jeopardise the mission if they didn’t work as planned, but as Pate said, “Flying these parts to Mars is a huge milestone that opens the door a little more for additive manufacturing in the space industry.”