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NASA is to use 3-D-printed parts for the first time in outer space

  • NASA's Orion spacecraft is set to launch next year for a journey around the moon.
  • The craft is set to use more than 100 3-D-printed parts.
  • They are jointly engineered by Lockheed Martin, Stratasys and Phoenix Analysis & Design Technologies.
Manufacture of Nasa's new Orion spacecraft
Manufacture of Nasa's new Orion spacecraft

NASA's Orion spacecraft, which is set to launch next year for a journey around the moon, will mark the first time that a deep-space craft has been built using 3-D-printed parts.

The space agency wants to conduct a new set of lunar missions, as well as exploration to other destinations including Mars. The Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) will send Orion, an un-crewed module, on a three-week voyage around the moon.

The Orion craft is set to use more than 100 3-D-printed parts jointly engineered by Lockheed Martin, Stratasys, and Phoenix Analysis & Design Technologies. It will be the first time that 3-D parts have been certified for deep space use. Deep space, or outer space, represents the physical universe beyond Earth's atmosphere.

Dr. Phil Reeves, vice president at Stratasys Strategic Consulting, said Tuesday that, thanks to the technology, the cost and complexity of space-ready components is tumbling.

"Those 100 parts might replace 500 or 600 parts, as the printed technology can be used to create complex geometrical shapes," he said.

Reeves highlighted Orion's docking station as an example where a previously complex part will now consist of just six individual 3-D-printed components locked together.

The Orion spacecraft will had a 3-D printed docking station.
The Orion spacecraft will had a 3-D printed docking station.

He also claimed that the 3-D parts supplied would offer a 50 percent weight-saving over previously used material, such as coated metal, without losing any strength.

Another key element to the new materials is their ability to dissipate static. Reeves said the build-up of electric charge is a problem in space leading to a risk of "fried electronics or a dangerous spark inside a craft."

Executives at Stratasys are hopeful that its new 3-D printing plastic, initially adopted by the space industry, will also find use in civil aviation, electronics, and packaging.