Oct 5, 2015 | By Alec

Though we still have a few months to go, it is already looking save to claim that 3D printed aerospace innovations are the most important development within the world of 3D printing in 2015. From Elon Musk’s 3D printed rocket plans, to NASA’s and China’s successful rocket tests, a lot has been going on. But perhaps the most promising innovation has come from a New Zealand based private firm Rocket Lab, who have been using 3D printed rockets and an especially designed launch platform (under construction) to make space exploration far more affordable than ever before. And now, that company has announced a deal with Silicon Valley’s Moon Express startup for three 3D printed rocket-powered missions to the moon.

To refresh your memory, New Zealand-based Rocket Lab unveiled their brand-new rocket in the spring of this year at a symposium in Colorado. The rocket engine, named Rutherford (after New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford), is not only nearly completely made from 3D printed parts, but is also the world’s first battery-powered rocket engine - the Electron launch system. This system is partly responsible for an estimated 95% price decrease for launching satellites into space.

The engine parts themselves were created using electron beam melting, which is similar to selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D printing techniques however it used an electron beam rather than a laser to melt and fuse metal powders. In total, the engine chamber, injector, turbopumps and main propellent halves were created using this unique method of additive manufacturing. Much of the financial backing for this interesting concept has come from venture capitalists, Lockheed Martin, NZ government funding and Sir Stephen Tindall's K1W1 investment fund. And as you can see in the clip below, Rocket Lab is very optimistic about what this innovation will do for the aerospace industry.

The Silicon Valley-based Moon Express Inc obviously agrees, because they have just signed a deal with Rocket Lab for three missions to send its robotic spacecraft to the moon. If successful, they would become the first private ventures to do so. Moon Express is one of those enterprises seeking to revolutionize space exploration, and they’ve got Google’s backing to do so. They were previously given a $1 million grant by Google to test flight a prototype of their moon lander, and with it they are chasing the prestigious Google Lunar XPRIZE, started to award the first privately funded spacecraft to reach the moon, travel 500 meters on its surface and transmit video and photos back to earth, a $30 million prize. Currently, Moon Express is the only team aiming for this goal.

As Moon Express co-Founder and chairman Naveen Jain said, their disruptive technological approach is set to forever change space exploration – all the way to Mars. ‘We are now taking advantage of exponential technology like 3D printing and inexpensive sensors to collapse the capital needed to access the Moon. Coupling these technological advancements with today's news about the Rocket Lab launch contract is a huge step forward for us in opening whole new markets for space exploration,’ he says.

Peter Beck.

Rocket Lab is equally pleased, said the company’s Peter Beck in a statement. ‘Rocket Lab is pleased to begin working with Moon Express to launch its spacecraft and to provide support to such an ambitious mission. Moon Express has used advanced orbital mechanics to enable this mission from low-Earth orbit,’ he writes. ‘The new contract with Moon Express shows the broad market demand for Rocket Lab's affordable, high-frequency Electron launch vehicle.’

Under the current contract, the first of the missions is set to take place in 2017, either from New Zealand, or from an American site. While the exact cost of the three missions is unclear, launching a single small satellite into orbit costs anywhere between $50,000 and $90,000, with prices for larger satellites ranging between $180,000 and $250,000. The MX-1 Lander which is making all this fuss currently ways around 200 kilograms including fuel, but work is still being done on it. The final result will weigh much less.

‘This will be the space equivalent of the four-minute mile,’ Moon Express’ CEO, Bob Richards told reporters. ‘This is a new era we just could have dreamed about as kids.’ The goal is to launch the vehicle into orbit, after which it will proceed on a weeks-long trajectory to the moon itself. Remarkably, it will land on the moon, take a 500 meter hop to prove its moving ability and then transmit footage back to earth. The lander will be powered with so-called green fuels (hydrogen peroxide and kerosene).

For those of you wondering why you would need three launches to do so, the idea is to get everything right on the first try but to have some backup options just in case. ‘Hopefully we nail it on the first time. But as you know, space is hard,’ Richards says. Options for a fourth and fifth launch have also been included in the contract. ‘The holy grail of our company is to provide, to prove, a full-services capability - not just landing, but coming back from the moon. I don't know if we'll do that on the second mission, but I sure hope we're trying it by the third mission…’



Posted in 3D Printing Applications





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