Each year, NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program awards contracts to small businesses across the United States to spur research and commercialization of innovative space technologies. As a renewed effort to return humans to the moon draws near, more startups than ever before are stepping up to support the agency’s upcoming space exploration and colonization initiatives, expected to launch into space in the mid-2020s. On May 14, 2021, the space agency announced a $105 million investment in 140 new Phase II awards to 127 U.S. small businesses to help them move their innovations to market. Ten of the chosen companies will use the funding to develop 3D printing-related projects, one of the most promising techniques for outer space manufacturing.
The Phase II awardees all received initial SBIR Phase I contracts in 2020 to demonstrate the merits of their innovations and show how they could contribute to NASA’s efforts in human exploration, space technology, science, and aeronautics. Each team will receive up to $750,000 to advance its technologies toward potential commercialization, and research teams will spend up to two years developing, demonstrating, and delivering their proposed projects. If they show promise, the program offers additional funding opportunities to help small businesses find investors and customers outside the space agency.
NASA’s Exploration Campaign in low-Earth orbit, orbit around the Moon and on its surface, and at destinations far beyond, including Mars. Image courtesy of NASA.
Encouraged by opportunities in the upcoming space economy, all selected technologies have already displayed great potential impacts in their respective sectors during the first phase. As we have reported in the past, dozens of startups are using 3D printing technologies as the basis of their SBIR projects. For this particular funding round, projects range from a laser additive manufacturing (AM) system for making radiation shielding components to a new process for 3D printing large metal structures in space. Here are the innovative developments:
1. Relativity Space’s Real-Time Error Detection
Renowned developer of 3D printed rockets, Relativity Space, has already created the world’s largest metal 3D printer platform to automate rocket manufacturing, known as the Stargate factory. Now, the company will work for the next 24 months on maturing its wire-feed AM platform’s capability for real-time in-situ flaw detection. The space startup proposed to grow its entire suite of sensor and camera technology to perform automatic, real-time defect detection, identification, and correction in its 3D printer. This could turn into a key enabler for 3D printing off-planet, with wide-ranging potential applications for NASA. This includes in-situ manufacturing, on-demand manufacturing from feedstock, and manufacturing objects that cannot be launched from Earth due to payload volume limits, such as habitat components that could be manufactured with a printer on the surface of the Moon.
Relativity Space’s facility houses the design, engineering, and production of the Terran 1 launch vehicle and Stargate printers. Image courtesy of Relativity Space.
2. IERUS Tech’s Satellite 3D Printer
Seeking to develop technology for in-orbit manufacturing is Alabama engineering firm IERUS Technologies. The group makes specialized large-scale AM processes to robotically fabricate and repair large structures – such as commercial satellites – in the external space environment. By leveraging Additive Friction Stir Deposition (AFS-D) process, the engineers hope to provide a new path for repairing and 3D printing metallic structures. According to the startup’s proposal, AFS-D produces fully dense, near-net-shape structures in open atmospheric conditions and would be ideal for 3D printing large metal structures in space and manufacturing large trusses, solar arrays, and antenna reflectors on Earth.
3. Advanced Cooling Tech’s 3D Printed Loop Heat Pipes
3. Due to the proliferation of commercial satellites, the space industry is dealing with an increasing demand for low-cost thermal control systems. This has led thermal management solutions company Advanced Cooling Technologies to create 3D printed loop heat pipes (LHPs). The high efficiency and flexible device is commonly used for spacecraft – such as CubeSats and SmallSats – but is too expensive to manufacture. Based out of Pennsylvania, the startup has developed a low-cost LHP evaporator using Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS), which eliminates a series of high-skill, labor-intensive steps that make LHPs so costly. The group plans to find a way to streamline the technique for higher power, large satellite applications, planetary rovers, and landers.
Quadrus Advanced Manufacturing has years of experience 3D printing certified components for U.S. government agencies. Image courtesy of Quadrus Advanced Manufacturing.
4. Quadrus AM’s Satellite Servicing Technology
Quadrus Advanced Manufacturing will focus on a novel satellite servicing technology. The Alabama business created a 3D printed, leak-proof mechanism that could safely transfer liquid propellant from a servicing satellite to a client satellite. Its radically simple Dexterous Leak-proof Interface (ADLI) design uses four 3D printed parts configured to interface with custom bellows formed from Nitinol. ADLI could potentially be inserted into planned orbital servicing missions, such as the upcoming follow-on to NASA’s On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing-1 (OSAM-1), or even as an insert in a rover that could transfer propellants to a launch vehicle during the flagship 2026 Mars Sample Return mission to collect rock and dust on the Red Planet.
5. UES’s CT Validation Technology
Women-owned Ohio business UES proposed a method to detect and validate computed tomography (CT) processes for AM, such as X-ray CT, a widely used nondestructive evaluation (NDE) method for quality control and post-build inspection in 3D printed components. The knowledge gained in the novel process will inform CT scan strategies for improved flaw detection in AM components, evaluate flaw detectability in CT using serial sectioning as a ground truth comparison, and quantify the risk of the flaws absent from the CT data sets. Reliable NDE of completed components remains a barrier to wider utilization of AM components, said UES in its proposal. Their new idea could help NASA with its many potential AM applications and projects.
6. Sierra Lobo’s 3D Printed Cryogenic Tanks
With over $100 million in contracts, minority-owned Ohio business Sierra Lobo will be working with Big Metal Additive to create and test cryogenic liquefaction and storage tanks using a unique hybrid additive approach to manufacturing tanks with broad area cooling channels integrated directly into the walls of the tanks. The unique tank shapes, only made possible using hybrid additive techniques, can enhance propellant transfer capacity and maximize spacecraft packaging capabilities. During the second phase of the project, thermal-vacuum testing will verify the process’ thermal-fluid performance and predictions of the thermal model developed during Phase I. Maximizing reproducibility while minimizing manual labor hours required to manufacture such tanks is one of the greatest advantages of the technology and NASA could use them for the Lunar Gateway, Earth-Moon operations, interplanetary operations, and in-situ resource utilization off-Earth.
7. Advanced Fuel Research’s 3D Printed Air Quality Testing Tech
Leading-edge technology developer Advanced Fuel Research proposed fabricating and testing technology for life-support systems in space, mainly for space suits and eventually in cabin-air revitalization. Since crew members are exposed to a mixture of contaminants in space, the team wants to fabricate and test structured, carbon-based multi-pollutant trace-contaminant (TC) sorbents for a space-suit used in Extravehicular Activities. During Phase I, the project successfully demonstrated the effectiveness of sorbents derived from 3D printed PEEK polymer to remove airborne contaminants ammonia, formaldehyde, and methyl mercaptan at concentrations close to seven-day spacecraft Maximum Allowable Concentration (SMAC) limits. After the second phase is complete, the technology could find applications in air-revitalization onboard US Navy submarines, in commercial and military aircraft, in future air-conditioning systems for green buildings, and advanced scuba-diving systems.
8. PolarOnyx’s 3D Printed Radiation Shielding
Focused on advanced laser 3D manufacturing, California-based PolarOnyx created an unprecedented laser AM system in Phase I for making radiation shielding components by mixing various powders that effectively shield neutron and gamma radiation. For the second phase of the project, the group hopes to deliver prototypes compliant with the neutron and gamma radiation shielding requirement. In addition to NASA’s radiation shield manufacturing, the proposed pulsed laser AM process can also be used in space vehicles, aircraft, and satellite manufacturing.
illustration of Artemis astronauts on the Moon. Image courtesy of NASA.
9. Micro Cooling Concepts’s 3D Printed Heat Exchangers for Electric Aircraft
To support NASA’s goal of advancing technologies for more electric aircraft, Micro Cooling Concepts will use AM to create lightweight, compact heat exchangers. The technology could apply to any NASA program where heat exchangers are required, and weight has a significant impact on system performance. For the second phase of the project, the proposal will consist of recuperator design, fabrication and testing of sub-scale test articles, and full-scale prototype fabrication and testing at engine-relevant conditions. Revolutionary Vertical Lift Technology, Ultra-Efficient Commercial Vehicles, and Advanced Air Transportation Technology are just examples of potential NASA applications for the program.
10. ATA’s 3D Weaving System
Finally, ATA Engineering will develop software for a 3D woven thermal protection system (WTPS), a new approach to producing TPS materials that use precisely engineered 3D weaving techniques to customize material characteristics to meet specific missions requirements for protecting space vehicles from the intense heating generated during atmospheric entry. The technology promises to improve WTPSs used in NASA applications by providing material properties early in the design process and reducing time to qualification. WTPS architectures are critical for NASA missions, like Mars sample return, high-speed crew return, high-mass Mars landers, and Venus and gas/ice giant probes. Potential applications for advanced 3D woven composites include rocket motor nozzles and thermal protection structures for hypersonic vehicles.