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Nasa’s interplanetary Orion spacecraft will be made of 100 3D-printed parts

Nasa’s next-generation Orion spacecraft, which may one day transport humans to Mars, will use over 100 3D-printed parts created from a special new material.

US defence contractor Lockheed Martin, 3D-printing specialist Stratasys and engineering firm PADT have developed the parts using new materials that can withstand the extreme temperatures and chemical exposure of deep-space missions.

“The demands of space travel require extremely high-performance materials and the most rigorous manufacturing processes in the industry,” said Scott Sevcik, vice president of manufacturing at Stratasys.

“Part integrity and repeatability are essential and must pass NASA’s demanding testing and validation process.”

The Orion (an artist rendering of which is pictured above) was first announced in 2011 and is intended to carry a crew of four astronauts to destinations at or beyond low Earth orbit.

Its first test flight occurred in 2014, although its first mission is not expected to take place until 2023 at the earliest.

3D printing is typically used extensively by engineering companies to quickly develop prototypes of new products in-house without having to rely on manufacturing hubs in places like China that can be thousands of miles from where a product is being designed.

An intricately-connected 3D-printed docking hatch door

Increasingly, the process is being seen as something that could be ramped up for scale production as well.

“It’s exciting to be a part of the Orion mission and Lockheed Martin’s efforts to transition additive manufacturing from prototyping to production,” said Rey Chu, principal and co-owner at PADT.

“Additive manufacturing technology and materials have come a long way to become a full-fledged, end-use manufacturing option.”

The technology can help make lightweight parts made of plastics more quickly and cheaply than traditional assembly lines that require major investments into equipment.

“But even more significant is that we have more freedom with the design... parts can look more organic, more skeletal,” Sevcik said.

Stratasys’s partner Lockheed Martin said the use of 3D printing on the Orion project would also pay off at other parts of its business.

“We look to apply benefits across our programs - missile defence, satellites, planetary probes, especially as we create more and more common products,” said Brian Kaplun, additive manufacturing manager at Lockheed Martin Space.

The agency’s European counterpart, ESA, has suggested that moon rock and Mars dust could be used to 3D print structures and tools, which could significantly reduce the cost of future space missions because less material would need to be brought along from Earth.

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