Perseverance Rover’s 3D printed metal parts are the latest addition in NASA’s space library. Lately, NASA has been expanding its reach to build rocket engines using additive manufacturing method. In its recent explore, NASA’s Perseverance rover, which will be landing on the Red Planet on Feb 18, 2021, is mentioned that it will carry 11 metal parts made with 3D printing.
The use of 3D printing allows engineers working on the segment to play with designs and traits like the making of hardware lighter, stronger and responsive. “It’s like working with papier-mâché,” said Andre Pate, the group lead for additive manufacturing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “You build each feature layer by layer, and soon you have a detailed part.”
Curiosity, Perseverance’s predecessor, was the first mission to take the 3D printing to the Red Planet, was a successful mission. It landed in 2012 carrying 3D printed ceramic part insider rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. NASA has been continuing to experiment with 3D printing for its spacecraft projects.
Perseverance’s printed parts would not jeopardize the mission if they did not work as planned, but as Pate said, “Flying these parts to Mars is a huge milestone that opens the door a little more for additive manufacturing in the space industry.”
Out of 11 printed parts going to Mars, five are in Perseverance’s PIXL instruments. PIXL is the short form of Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry; the lunchbox-size device will help the rover seek out signs of fossilized microbial life by shooting X-ray beams at rock surfaces to analyse them.
The instrument PIXL shares space with other tools by NASA in the 88-pound rotating turret at the end of the rover’s 7-foot-long robotic arm. To make this instrument as light as possible, the JPL team designed PIXLs two-piece titanium shell, a mounting frame, and two support struts securing the shell to the end of the arm to be hollow and extremely thin.
“In a very real sense, 3D printing made this instrument possible,” said Michael Schein, PIXL’s lead mechanical engineer at JPL. “These techniques allowed us to achieve a low mass and high-precision pointing that could not be made with conventional fabrication.”
MOXIE turning up the heat
Perseverance’s six other 3D printed parts are found in instrument callas as the Mars Oxygen in- Situ Resource Utilization Experiment or MOXIE. This device is designed to test technology and could produce industrial quantities of oxygen to create rocket propellant on Mars.
To get oxygen, MOXIE heats up the Martian air up to nearly 800 degree Celsius. In this device there are six heat exchangers- palm-size nickel-alloy plates protecting key parts of the instrument from the effects of the high temperatures.
“These kinds of nickel parts are called super alloys because they maintain their strength even at very high temperatures,” said Samad Firdosy, a material engineer at JPL who helped develop the heat exchangers. “Superalloys are typically found in jet engines or power-generating turbines. They’re really good at resisting corrosion, even while really hot.”
Although, this new manufacturing process offer convenience, each layer of alloy the printer lays down forms pores weakening the material. Engineers use microscopes and conduct mechanical testing to check the microstructure.