NASA's Curiosity Rover has landed on Mars this weekend, the most advanced rover that human has ever sent to the neighbor planet.
This largest Mars rover, almost the size of a Mini Cooper with six wheels, is carrying scientific instruments including a rock-vaporizing laser with a seven-foot range, and a plutonium power supply. How do you get from rocketing over 13,000 miles per hour in space to safely roving on the red planet?
"You always want it to be as light as possible, but you also want it to be strong enough." says Chris Chapman, NASA test engineer.
NASA's ultimate goal is to send humans to Mars. In the Arizona desert, NASA astronauts and engineers are test-driving a rover over rocks and sand in an environment that simulates the brutal conditions of Mars. The rover — about the size of a Hummer and boasting a pressurized cabin to support humans in space — is being put to the test.
(This rover, which has a pressurized cabin to support astronauts,
includes about 70 FDM parts, including housings, vents and fixtures.)
In the nearer future, similar vehicles might help humans investigate near-earth asteroids. To design such a vehicle, NASA engineers use Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) Technology from Stratasys - 70 of the parts that make up the rover were built digitally, directly from computer designs, in the heated chamber of a production-grade Stratasys Fortus 3D Printer.
The 3D-printed parts on NASA's rover include flame-retardant vents and housings, camera mounts, large pod doors, a large part that functions as a front bumper, and many custom fixtures. These parts are printed using ABS, PCABS and polycarbonate materials, which are lightweight but durable enough for rugged end-use parts.
FDM offers the design flexibility and quick turnaround to build tailored housings for complex electronic assemblies. For example, one ear-shaped exterior housing is deep and contorted, and would be impossible — or at least prohibitively expensive — to machine.
Failure is Not an Option
NASA's mantra regarding human space travel is: Failure is not an option. The journey to space subjects a vehicle to intense stresses, starting with the launch from Earth.
"You're going at several thousand miles per hour just to escape the Earth's atmosphere. So you've got to be able to handle all these vibrations just to get out into space, and the vehicle can't be damaged," Chapman says.
NASA engineers also 3D print prototypes to test form, fit and function of parts they'll eventually build in other materials. This ensures machined parts are based on the best possible design by solving challenges before committing to expensive tooling. "Everyone's got a budget to deal with, and we're no different," says Chapman.
Posted in 3D Printers Applications
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