ESA’s tentative embrace of 3D-printed spacecraft parts

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LOS ANGELES — While additive manufacturing is changing the way spacecraft are built, more innovation will come from combining advanced manufacturing tools with new materials and design strategies.

“How can I make a satellite that will be fully optimized with respect to its mission,” Laurent Pambaguian, European Space Agency materials technology engineer, asked at the Additive Aerospace Summit last week. “Additive manufacturing is important because it brings a lot of possibilities, but it is a small bit of this global optimization.”

In this quest for global optimization, the European Space Agency is investigating the characteristics and properties of promising materials at its Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory established in 2016 at the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Harwell, Oxfordshire.

“We want to investigate more in-depth than anything that is done, generally speaking, in industry,” Pambaguian said. For example, researchers can study the microstructure of exotic materials or the way material is welded.

At the same time, the agency is exploring a variety of manufacturing processes in addition to additive manufacturing.

“We have a rapid change of the manufacturing landscape on Earth,” Pambaguian said. “We have a new machine manufacturer every two months, a new technology every six months and new alloys are under development. We need to understand how we can spin in these materials and processes to maximize the performances of our spacecraft.”

Although additively manufactured parts have not yet flown on ESA satellites, Pambaguian expects to see that change in the next few years.

“We have a lot of things that are coming,” he said, adding that the space agency would use advanced manufacturing for more than brackets. “In the next five years we will have stuff dealing with propulsion, mechanisms and optics. In all these domains, demonstrators and breadboards have been developed and tested under ESA leadership.”

ESA engineers also are devising spacecraft parts that can serve multiple functions. “We run concurrent design sessions, where the different engineering fields implicated in the use of the part are represented: quality assurance, cost, integration,” Pambaguian said. The engineers work together to design parts that fulfill many different requirements.

Looking ahead, ESA is exploring the materials and technology needed to build the Moon Village that ESA’s Director-General Jan Woerner envisions.

“If we want to one day be on the moon, we have to get it started,” Pambaguian said. “How do we process small and large pieces of regolith? How can we do 3D printing in the framework of a lunar base?”