Oct. 8, 2014

3D printing builds up a part in layers and can be used to create extremely complex geometries directly from computer-aided design models.have used 3D printing as a technology with the potential to transform the way space missions are put together. Imagine Global space agencies missions reaching orbit that then print themselves particularly delicate instruments that would never have survived the turbulent flight up through the atmosphere. Or planetary surface missions that utilise local materials for building.

But there are still work to be done to ensure 3D-printed products are genuinely space-ready. One method is to redesign and build existing high-performance parts using 3D printing.

Recently, engineers at European Space Agency (ESA) teamed up with Netherlands research institute TNO to redesign a 3D-printed mirror, a crucial piece of the Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument (Tropomi) atmospheric spectrometer instrument set to fly on ESA's Sentinel-5P mission in 2016.

Tropomi mirror test redesign using AM (Image: ESA)

The Dutch-developed Tropomi operates by sifting out particular spectral fingerprints from light that has passed through Earth's atmosphere, in order to identify trace gases. To do so, Tropomi requires a pair of precisely distorted mirrors set up to form an 'optical cavity' to focus incoming light sharply into a split in the instrument, leading to a selection of light-splitting gratings.

Sentinel-5 Precursor (Image TNO)

"This represents a demanding target for AM reproduction, because the mirror's precise optical quality needed to be reproduced as well," explains Laurent Pambaguian of ESA's Materials Technology Section, coordinating Agency AM research.

The original mirror design is manufactured in aluminium with a mass of 284.6 grams and a nickel phosphorous coating. Engineers decided to 3D print it in titanium, using selective laser melting method. The resulting part was streamlined, with unnecessary mass removed. The 3D printed mirror weighed in at just 127.7 grams, with the same coating.

Reworking Tropomi mirror (Image ESA)

Although ESA will still use the original mirror design for its space missions, this trial shows the mass-saving potential for instruments and overall mission design in the future.

AM-produced launcher payload connector (image ESA/Airbus D&S)

A new project supported through ESA's Clean Space initiative plans to apply AM technologies to satellite design to its mission mass, cost, lead time and environmental impact. The study will highlight the current AM technology maturity and remaining limitations.

3D printed deployable mechanisms (Image: Thales Alenia Space)

"The biggest challenge is having to start from scratch on developing the qualification and verification routes for such materials," explains Tommaso Ghidini, Head of ESA's ‎ Materials Technology Section.

"Standards need to be put in place to ensure that AM part characteristics are equally well quantified and documented as today's subtractive-material equivalents."

Posted in 3D Printing Applications

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