Planetary Resources, the innovative, bold company with plans to strip-mine asteroids for their valuable resources, has revealed it will use advanced 3-D printing techniques to produce its line of Arkyd space telescopes.
Planetary is teaming up with 3-D Systems with the goal of rapidly creating components for the Arkyd vehicles in a much faster, cheaper, and less labor-intensive way than is typical for space projects. Much more than merely prototyping the design, the intention is to use 3-D printing to mass produce the individual vehicles that will comprise the Arkyd fleet. These spacecraft, beginning with the observation Arkyd 100 space telescopes, will act as a swarm to enable much faster discovery, surveying, and access to asteroids.
Meanwhile NASA has successfully test-fired a rocket engine that uses a 3-D printed injector component—the part of the engine that squirts liquid oxygen and hydrogen into the main combustion chamber. Smaller than a production-grade part and designed to test the robustness of parts made in this way, the injector nozzle wasn't made using the sort of extruded plastic, simple 3-D printing you're probably familiar with. Instead it's made using laser sintering, where a high-power laser scans a bed of metallic powder and fuses it into a solid body in the desired shape. The advantage of 3-D printing it this way is the speed and precision of the process, which NASA notes would otherwise have required a year of careful machining to make. As a bonus, the part also cost 70% less to produce, and it successfully survived the test firing.
NASA recently revealed its plan for 3-D printing experiments aboard the ISS. And space missions are where 3-D printing could really deliver benefits, as NASA's rocket engine and the Arkyd plans testify: Compared to labor- and cost-intensive efforts to produce the precision-engineered parts for satellites and rockets, 3-D production saves time and money.