Mar. 20, 2015 | By Simon

Thanks to recent developments in space-ready products ranging from hand tools to rovers completed by everyday citizens, the amount of initiatives that have been setup to spearhead more innovations has been rising over the past few years - especially thanks to the lower costs and increased accessibility that 3D printing has been able to offer.  The most recent competition that encourages small teams to develop objects for space exploration comes from none other than NASA.

The NASA Cube Quest competition - which is sponsored by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate Centennial Challenge Program - is currently offering a total of $5 million to teams that meet the challenge objectives of designing, building and delivering flight-qualified, small satellites capable of advanced operations near and beyond the moon.

Teams who enter one of the three stages (Ground Tournaments, Deep Space Derby, and Lunar Derby) and rate the highest will have the opportunity to earn a spot on NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which will launch atop the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

Among the teams who are entering include PrintTheBus, who are focusing their efforts specifically on entering lunar orbit and spacecraft longevity.  

The name “PrintTheBus” is a play on ‘satellite bus’ which is a vehicle that gets a satellite’s payload where it needs to go.  The bus includes a structure, a propellant tank, valves and anything else that is needed to support a specific journey.  

The team - which consists of manufacturing, engineering and computer science experts Nick, Alex and Ernie - is focusing their efforts around creating the world’s first 3d printed open source satellite.  The goal of PrintTheBus is to print the most capable satellite structure while leaving open the largest volume possible for the payload.  In order to help raise funds to test their design - which was done in SolidWorks - the team has turned to Kickstarter to help raise the necessary funds.  Rewards for backers include everything from a printed replica of the satellite to their very own space within the team’s own allotted space if they win the competition.   

The team has even broken down exactly how they plan to use the funds that they raise on Kickstarter dollar-by-dollar:

  • 3D Printed Structure: $15,500
  • Stress relieve the structure, grind rails flat, anodize rails, chemical conversion coat: $6,500
  • Vibration test (we rent time at a facility with an electrodynamic shaker): $10,000
  • Vibration test fixture (custom plate to attach our structure to the shaker): $2,000
  • Pressure transducers for tank proof load test: $500
  • Hydraulic hand pump for tank proof load test: $50
  • Thermal vacuum test (we rent time at a facility with a TVAC chamber): $10,000

         Subtotal: $44,550  + Kickstarter  (5%) + Payment Fee (5%): $4,455 =

         Total: $49,005

​In order to ensure that their design is ready for the expensive testing processes that they have turned to Kickstarter to raise funds for, the team has already completed an extensive amount of simulation tests from within SolidWorks that have tested everything from overall structural strength for pressure changes as well as the ability to withstand the rapid acceleration of the launch.


The team will be printing their design using aluminum and have already been in contact with a vendor who is capable of printing their design.  The final print will be made on an EOS M 400 DMLS machine capable of printing at a dimension of 15.7” x 15.7” x 15.7”.  The EOS M 400 is currently the only machine capable of printing a structure this size and the team is also looking at using stronger materials when they become available.  

Aside from the obvious benefit of being able to print their own custom design with less overhead than traditional manufacturing techniques, the team has also outlined some other benefits of 3D printing that are helping facilitate their final design decisions.  Among them include the ability to create internal geometry such as honeycomb, no need for fasteners to create an assembly, no bolted joints that could weaken the structure, no need to sacrifice part integrity through engraving individual parts, no tubing (no bulky threaded interfaces and no leak-site, no requirements for wrench access) and finally, an overall lower overhead.  

If you’ve ever wanted to become involved with a project that brings both space exploration and 3D printing together, consider backing the PrintTheBus project to stay updated and become involved with the process of sending the first 3D printed satellite to the moon!



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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