Feb.5, 2015 | By Simon

As developments towards putting 3D printing in space - both actual 3D prints as well as the act of 3D printing - become more prevalent, it’s easy to associate 3D printing with recent efforts done by Made in Space to put a working 3D printing aboard the International Space Station.  While Made in Space is certainly doing just as much - if not more - than anybody else out there, they certainly aren’t the only ones who have been working on sending 3D printed objects into the outer atmosphere.

Recently, a team of dozens of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs from several countries around the world won $750,000 after competing in Google’s Lunar XPrize contest,  an international competition to inspire low-cost commercial space exploration, build a foundation for private space exploration and radically transform spaceflight from a government-owned venture to an entity with open access.  

Founded in 2008 and based in Berlin, Germany,  the team of innovators behind Part-Time Scientists were inspired to build a low-cost alternative to NASA’s astronomically-expensive Curiosity rover -  which set the space agency back nearly $2.5 billion in development and launch costs.  The Part-Time Scientists have developed a lower-cost solution in the form of Asimov, the name of their collaboratively-designed rover.

“While the mission provided excellent science and the multistage, soft-landing approach was brilliant engineering, this is indeed the type of mission we want to move away from due to the cost and development time involved,” said Robert Böhme, a co-founder of Part-Time Scientists.  

The team decided to hone their efforts on two categories of the competition that each carried their own cash prizes: Mobility and Imaging.  While mobility was focused on creating a rover that was able to navigate the Moon’s rough terrain, the imaging category was focused on camera design and the ability to obtain High-Definition video and stills of the Moon’s surface to be sent back to earth.  

Although the full-time scientists and designers at NASA spent several years and ended up having a successful space mission with the Curiosity, the Part-Time Scientists were able to create their rover design for roughly $500,000...partly thanks to 3D printing technologies and partnerships with both Citim of Atlanta, Georgia, USA and SLM Solutions of Germany.  

While both of the companies are focused solely on metal-based additive manufacturing, they are also thousands of miles apart from each other...however the Part-Time Scientists were able to coordinate the printing of Asimov’s wheels using both of the companies’ services.  Under a partnership with DLR (German Aerospace Center), the Part-Time Scientists were able to both further develop and test the wheels and tread in order to optimize them for maximum traction on the Moon’s surface as well as fabricate the camera head of their own design for documenting imagery on the Moon’s surface.   

To create the wheels, Part-Time Scientists employed the use of both SLM Solutions and Citim’s Laser Melting 3D printing technology which allowed for the wheels to be fabricated with complex and intricate wheel tread.  Additionally, the use of additive manufacturing delivered the parts much faster while also keeping their development costs down compared to more traditional fabrication processes.  

While the wheels took their own considerable amount of development time, the Part-Time Scientists also had to use the Laser Melting 3D printing technology to create a durable and rugged camera housing that would not only resist the unpredictable conditions on the Moon’s surface, but also survive through the strenuous rocket launch and ultimately, landing on the Moon’s surface.  

The camera itself was designed by the Part-Time Scientists team and due to the rapidly-progressing camera technologies over the years in development, rapid prototyping proved to be an invaluable method of manufacturing as the team tested various types of technology before culminating on a final design.  

“Part of the problem in our now five year old project is that new commercial technology continues to become available, though more on the sensor than lens parts, and we want to take advantage of the better technology to increase our resolution, improve sensing characteristics, decrease power consumption, etc,” said the Part-Time Scientists in a blog post.   

“As a result, whenever we integrate new commercial products, we have the test them for radiation and temperature tolerances and integrate them into our designs.”

The design of the final camera unit consists of three CMOSIS CMV4000-R2 sensors and three Schneider-Kreuznach lenses that are assembled in a single 3D printed housing.  While two of the cameras work as a pair to create 3D imagery, the third camera includes various lens filters for various scientific imagery needs...including gathering images of specific materials that cannot be seen by a naked lens.  The resolution of the camera is roughly double that of what was previously used on the Apollo missions and although they could have opted for an even higher-resolution camera, the team decided against it in order to keep unit cost, integration effort, sensitivity to radiation and computational post-processing requirements low.  

“Our goal is to provide sufficient technology to accomplish a wide range of missions at a greatly reduced cost to the mission carrier — not to exceed the state of the art and set a new record for high-resolution space imagery,” added Böhme.

“We are not competing in engineering, but in our ability to realize a successful mission at greatly reduced cost and shorter development time.”



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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