[IMTS 2022] How manufacturing technology is being used for space exploration

IMTS has appeared in many companies that put their technologies at the service of space exploration. From 3D-printing habitats for the Moon to manufacturing mirrors for the James Webb Telescope, industrial innovation in space is finding a new field of application.

Space exploration is back in the spotlight, with NASA’s highly anticipated launch of the Artemis 1 Space Launch System rocket to the moon. Now, the goal is to colonize the star and possibly Mars later. But how are we going to build houses on the moon? 3D printing could make cost-effective lunar colonization a reality.

The home of the 3D printing space

At IMTS, Ingersoll demonstrated its robotic master system that can print a polymer door mold for space habitats.

The printer, the largest in the world, can extrude printer filament at a rate of 226 kg per hour.

At IMTS, Ingersoll demonstrated its automated system (C. Rustici).
The robot Masterprint also printed the outer shell of the Rosenberg Space Habitat’s 7-meter-high experimental habitat (C. Rustici).
(Courtesy of SAGA Space Architects)

According to Kyle Calvert, Composition Application Engineer in Ingersoll Machine ToolsAnd the

“We are printing a mold for the door of the dome. It will weigh 145 lbs. (65 kg) It only takes 7 hours to print. With carbon and fiberglass laying tools, the typical time to market is 3 to 4 months. However, with additive manufacturing, we can create a mold of 8 to 10 meters in just 3 days. Once you have the template printed, it will only take 1-2 weeks to mill because we are printing close to the clear shape. This means we are printing the entire part about 5mm from the stack. Hence the manufacturing process is much faster. So it gives you a much faster time to market.”

The robot Masterprint has also printed the outer shell of the Rosenberg Space Habitat’s 7-meter-high experimental habitat located in Switzerland.

“In terms of lunar exploration, Project Rosie, the Space Habitat that we have printed has been installed at the Rosenberg Institute in Switzerland, and they are testing and researching it to see what it would be like to live on it if you wanted the Moon. The current plan is to install 6 printed modules inside the rocket to be sent to the moon. The Moon. But sending all the structures to the Moon is very expensive, so the long-term plans are to install a smaller robotic system on the Moon to be able to print the required components.”

Manufacture of mirrors for the James Webb telescope

The James Webb Telescope was launched in December 2021 with the aim of exploring the universe’s past. It is the largest and most complex space science telescope the world has ever seen and contains about a dozen unprecedented technologies.

One of them is a 6.5-meter pure beryllium mirror. The mirror consists of 18 individual segments, and it captures infrared light emitted by distant objects. It is made of beryllium because this material is lightweight and can withstand extremely cold temperatures.

Mitsui Seki Contacted by NASA to provide eight horizontal 4-axis machining centers dedicated to the Beryllium Rod Machine for the James Webb Telescope Mirror (Mitsui Seki)

Mitsui Seki Was contacted by NASA to do this task. But making these 18 components was a difficult task because the manufacture of beryllium is complex, explained Scott J. Walker, Charman of Mitsui Seki:

“When you machine the beryllium, and it removes approximately 20-40 microns of material, it needs to be taken out of the machine, put into a titanium bag containing nitrogen, put into a heat treatment furnace and put back into the machine. So in order to complete the job and meet the schedule, NASA needed 8 machines, each machine removing a small amount of beryllium over and over. So the machines had to be built with the exact same geometry in this slice of space where the lens would be placed. It’s very difficult to do!”

If the company is able to provide eight dedicated 4-axis horizontal machining centers to machine beryllium mirror rods, it is because it specializes in making machine tool platforms with core competence.

“This series of machines is designed to do a specific job that can only be done by hand scraping and hand fitting machines. There are only two companies in the world that do this: ourselves and another Japanese company.”

Two years were needed to complete the job. Machines were only built for this specific task, but half of them are still used to make aerospace gearboxes.