New Space and Tech

Pathway to Planetary Exploration: 3D Printing’s Role in Getting Humans to Mars

By Keith Cowing
Dr. Zach Murphree, Velo3D
January 16, 2023
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Pathway to Planetary Exploration: 3D Printing’s Role in Getting Humans to Mars
Launcher’s Orbiter propellant tank printed out of Inconel using its first VELO3D Sapphire Printer.

When you look at the growth in space launches over the past decade, it’s astounding to see how fast humanity has increased the number of payloads delivered to orbit.

By leveraging the latest, most advanced manufacturing technologies, space startups have made it much more affordable to deliver payloads to space with new, improved, and optimized launch vehicles.

These launch vehicles are delivering payloads to space for far less than the rockets we saw in the 70s and 80s. For many modern rocket engines, the cost to deliver a kilo to orbit has dropped by as much as 90%. A lot of these cost improvements have been made possible by new manufacturing techniques. Others are made possible through new designs. The best orbital launch systems utilize both.

What many may not realize, however, is that 3D printing is playing a massive part in manufacturing next-generation rocket engines. These are not consumer-focused plastic 3D printers that many are familiar with. Instead, some of today’s most cutting-edge rockets feature complex geometries that provide real performance optimization and are made from impressive 3D printed metal alloys developed primarily for space applications.

Nearly every new space company is using 3D printing to produce mission-critical components. Some of the applications include turbopumps, fuel injectors, heat exchangers, and regeneratively-cooled thrust chambers and nozzles. Even traditional space organizations, like NASA, are exploring 3D printing to drive innovation.

It’s safe to say 3D printing is playing a critical role in humanity’s desire to explore space, colonize Mars, and become a multi-planetary species.

What metal 3D printing enables for aerospace engineers is the ability to produce parts without compromising their design for the sake of manufacturability. Often, engineers are required to alter their most performance-optimized designs because they are simply too complex or costly to reliably produce with conventional manufacturing techniques.

With metal 3D printing, engineers are free from those constraints.

However, this technology is not only being used to produce engines, it’s also being used to create components for spacecraft and satellites.

Launcher, a Hawthorne, California-based space startup, is a prime example of a company utilizing 3D printing for both rocket engines and spacecraft.

Earlier this month, the company successfully launched its Orbiter satellite transfer vehicle onboard SpaceX’s Transporter-6 mission.

The vehicle was developed to precisely position satellites in orbit at the lowest price. Previously, accomplishing this task required a dedicated launch that can cost up to 10 times more compared to a rideshare launch.

Orbiter utilized an extensive number of 3D printed parts in aluminum F357, titanium 6AI-4V, and Inconel 718 (a nickel-based super alloy that is capable of operating at very high temperatures). The parts that were 3D printed were chosen due to 3D printing’s ability to improve performance or reduce part lead time. These parts can be seen in this graphic.

  • Tanks (Titanium 6AI-4V): Multi-purpose tanks that are used as primary and secondary structures as well as propellant tanks, printed as a single part without internal supports.
  • Thruster Bracket (Aluminum F357): This holds the thruster manifold assembly.
  • Thruster Manifold (Aluminum F357): Is used for attitude control and station keeping,
    fueling the Orbiter engine.
  • Orbiter Engine Injectors (Inconel® 718): Mixes propellant to be burned in the engine
    combustion chamber.
  • Orbiter Engine Chambers (Inconel® 718): Main engine used for orbit changes to position
    Oriber to properly place payloads into specific orbits.
  • Thrust Structure (Titanium 6AI-4V): Supports the Orbiter engine and gimbal assembly.
  • Spring Housings (Titanium 6AI-4V): Hold springs for the separation system that
    connects Orbiter to the launch vehicle.
  • Star Camera Baffle (Aluminum F357): Used for precise navigation to keep Orbiter on-

Through 3D printing, Launcher was able to rapidly iterate and drastically shorten the development time of this satellite transfer vehicle. This type of rapid iteration is one of the biggest benefits to using 3D printing to develop applications for space.

Rather than develop new tooling for modified parts, you simply change the design file and print a new version. After designs are finalized, metal 3D printing allows the company to quickly ramp up production as well.

In the coming decade, metal 3D printing will be one of the biggest drivers for innovation in space. Launcher is a prime example of how the technology is helping businesses make big impacts on society—and that doesn’t stop with Orbiter. Launcher is also using metal 3D printing solutions from Velo3D to produce critical components for its E2 rocket engine, which is a closed-cycle, staged-combustion engine that powers the first stage of its light launch vehicle.

This high efficiency engine enables a small, low cost rocket to carry a comparatively large amount of payload.

When humanity eventually reaches Mars, it will have been made possible because of 3D printed parts.

Written by Dr. Zach Murphree, Velo3d

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.