The New Space Race

Additive manufacturing has become an integral part of space travel and lunar exploration

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“Staggering” might be the best word to describe the changes in metal fabrication technology since 1972, the year NASA last sent astronauts to the Moon. One change of note is the widespread adoption of additive manufacturing, a.k.a, 3-D printing. The headlines are mostly related to its use in healthcare (surgical tools, prosthetics), but with its adoption in aerospace and inclusion in recent space exploration achievements, additive manufacturing is making headlines of its own.

NASA recently confirmed the dates of new lunar missions, including Artemis II, slated for Sept. 2025 and featuring a manned lunar orbiter, and Artemis III in Sept. 2026 when astronauts will arrive at the lunar surface for the first time in more than 50 years. Adding to the excitement is the recent successful landing on the Moon by a robotic spacecraft, which utilized a variety of 3-D printed parts.

With the precision inherent in additive manufacturing, intricate designs, including those on high-tech heat exchangers, are possible.

“We are returning to the Moon in a way we never have before,” says Bill Nelson, a NASA administrator, in a news release, “and the safety of our astronauts is NASA’s top priority as we prepare for future Artemis missions.”

Leading the way are providers of additive manufacturing machines, such as EOS, an early player in this industry. It is due to technology from companies like EOS that a new term – NewSpace – has been coined. This refers to the recent upswing of companies dedicated to space-related activities, including some “disruptive” technologies like additive manufacturing used in various parts of the space capsule, rockets and more.

Lunar landing

Appropriately headquartered in Houston, Intuitive Machines is a company dedicated to space exploration and has substantial responsibilities related to the upcoming lunar missions, including lunar lander services, lunar orbit delivery and communications at the lunar surface.

“Less than a decade ago,” begins a quote from the company’s website, “Intuitive Machines was an idea, written on a napkin, to solve humanity’s greatest challenges. Now, we are extending our lead in the development of lunar space, and we are inspired by where the next decade and beyond will take us.”

Intuitive Machines is responsible for providing the vehicle, called a Nova-C class lander, that will actually touch down on the Moon. The company’s lander is capable of carrying scientific payloads of up to 2,200 lbs. On Feb. 22, the company achieved a major milestone when its 14-ft. tall lander, officially named Odysseus (nicknamed Odie) for this mission, successfully made a “soft landing” on the Moon, making it the first privately built craft to land on the lunar surface. This success helps to pave the way for future missions to the Moon, including the 2026 manned landing.

“Our Lunar Access Services provide a reliable and affordable means for governments to explore,” Intuitive Machine’s website says, “companies to develop, and individuals to place an object in cislunar space or on the lunar surface.”

A long list of metals can be used in additive manufacturing, including nickel alloys, but Intuitive Machines also uses titanium and Inconel in its parts made for space exploration. 

Another important piece of the lunar missions will be Intuitive Machine’s µNova (Micro Nova) Hopper, which is a unit that deploys from the Nova-C lander, “hops across the lunar surface” and can accommodate up to 2.2 lbs. of science payloads.

“µNova can also hop into and out of permanently shaded regions,” according to the website, “providing a first look into undiscovered areas that may provide the critical science needed to sustain a human presence on the Moon.”

According to a statement from Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines, the landers are based on a decade’s worth of engineering development.

“We’ve made every effort to take the complexity and cost out of getting to the Moon,” he says via the company’s website.

Advanced manufacturing

Behind the recent accomplishments and the excitement for future missions is the “nuts and bolts” and physical makeup the machines traveling the 240,000 miles to Earth’s closest celestial body. Industrial Machines has two additive manufacturing machines in its production facility – the EOS M 290, billed as “mid-sized and multi-talented, the industry standard for qualified 3-D printed metal parts.”

The M 290 features what ESO calls “the most extensive range of validated materials and processes on the market.” Additive manufacturing relies on a process called direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) where parts are created layer by layer via 3-D CAD models. A high-power laser, which in the M 290’s case is a 400-W fiber laser, melts (sinters) the metal powder following the CAD model.

Intuitive Machines uses two EOS M 290 additive manufacturing machines, equipped with 400-W fiber lasers, at its production facility in Houston, Tex.

The M 290 works with a variety of materials, including aluminum, case hardening steel, cobalt chrome, copper, nickel alloys, stainless steel, titanium and tool steel. At Industrial Machine, the M 290 produces parts in “several characterized materials, including Inconel (IN625) and titanium (Ti64).”

According to Industrial Machine’s website, the facility also houses the “IM3D design studio and post processing facilities that enhance development of additive parts. With these capabilities, we can rapidly manufacture on-demand prototypes, development parts and spares with a focus on producing small series and high-quality serial productions of metal additively manufactured components.”

Quality assurances

Given the dangers associated with space travel, there can be no downplaying the importance of quality assurance of even the smallest parts, including those made by additive manufacturing machines. Ferdinand Endrass, an additive manufacturing consultant at EOS, explains in a webinar on the EOS M 290 that several controls are in place that allow users to achieve maximum quality outcomes.

“We look at the critical-to-quality parameters that are built into our M 290 that allow us to control the processes,” he says, adding that these parameters include the laser power, process chamber atmosphere, scanner and optics, recoating, software configuration and movement of the individual axes. “All of these are needed in order to meet the performance requirements of the final part.”

Strict quality controls are built into the process of operating an additive manufacturing machine from EOS, allowing for finished parts that meet expectations.

Endrass says the laser power is critical because it has a direct influence on the melting behavior and parameters like grain structure and the depth of the melt pool. Therefore, built into the M 290 is a laser power monitoring system that takes a measurement of the power of the laser every tenth layer during the additive manufacturing process.

“The customer also has the option to measure using an external measuring device to ensure the optical chain is as specified,” he says.

This focus on quality also extends to the software updates for the M 290. To ensure no bugs or glitches accompany an update, EOS follows the ISO 9001 quality management international standard on all its updates.

Take a look at what is possible with additive manufacturing’s laser sintering technology in this video from EOS.

“What’s becoming more important about the lifecycle of the machine is the software that you use in the entire ecosystem for your additive machine,” Endrass says. “Software updates can bring large improvements, but they need to be validated, especially when you have to qualify your additive manufacturing processes. We have dedicated testing procedures in place before we release new revisions of the software.”

EOS

Intuitive Machines

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