NASA collaborated with researchers to successfully 3D print a prototype of a moon rover wheel.


October 6, 2023 This article has been thoroughly reviewed by Science X’s editorial team. Editors have ensured credibility by fact-checking, using trusted sources, and having the content proofread by Greg Cunningham, a researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

In an unprecedented collaboration between the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and NASA, additive manufacturing is being taken to new heights. The teams have successfully 3D printed a wheel that mirrors the design used by NASA for their lunar rover. This groundbreaking achievement showcases the potential of 3D printing for creating specialized parts required for space exploration.

The wheel, which was printed at DOE’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) at ORNL, was modeled after the lightweight wheels of NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER). VIPER is a mobile robot set to be sent to the moon’s south pole in 2024 to map ice and potential resources. The mission aims to determine the origin and distribution of water on the moon, as well as the feasibility of extracting enough water from the moon’s surface to sustain human life.

Although the prototype wheel will not be used on the NASA Moon mission, it was created to meet the exact design specifications of the wheels made for VIPER. Further testing is planned to validate the design and fabrication method for potential future lunar or Mars rovers and other space applications involving large structural components.

One of the key advantages of additive manufacturing is its ability to reduce energy consumption, material waste, and lead time. It also allows for intricate design complexity and the customization of material properties. For over a decade, MDF has been at the forefront of developing this technology for various applications in the clean energy, transportation, and manufacturing sectors.

The rover wheel prototype was printed at ORNL in the fall of 2022 using a specialized 3D printer. This printer utilized two coordinated lasers and a rotating build plate to selectively melt metal powder into the desired shape. Unlike typical metal powder bed systems that operate in sequential steps, this printer can simultaneously and continuously perform the necessary steps for printing large objects. Peter Wang, the lead developer of new laser powder bed fusion systems at MDF, stated that this unique capability dramatically increases production rates and deposition occurs 50% faster. Wang believes that this printer represents the future of laser powder bed printing, particularly for large-scale and mass production.

To analyze the scalability of the technology for printing components like electric motors, Wang and the project team recently published a study in the journal 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing. While the printer used in this project is exceptional, the researchers’ expertise in process automation and machine control was essential to its success. They developed software at ORNL that segmented the wheel design into vertical layers and balanced the workload between the two lasers, achieving a high production rate. This computational technique has been submitted for patent protection.

The prototype wheel, made of a nickel-based alloy, is significantly larger than typical parts printed with metal powder bed systems. Measuring about 8 inches wide and 20 inches in diameter, it required the ability to print small geometric features across a large work area. Additive manufacturing enabled the creation of a more complex rim design without incurring additional costs or manufacturing difficulties.

This project exemplifies the value of collaboration between government agencies. Brian Gibson, the researcher who led the ORNL team’s work on the rover wheel, expressed his excitement about connecting their technological capability with NASA’s evolving requirements. He regards this achievement as a significant milestone in the advancement of additive manufacturing for space exploration.

In conclusion, the successful 3D printing of the rover wheel prototype brings additive manufacturing one step closer to revolutionizing space exploration. The collaboration between ORNL and NASA paves the way for future advancements in using this technology to create specialized parts for lunar and Mars rovers, as well as other space applications. With its ability to reduce waste and lead time while enabling intricate designs and tailored material properties, additive manufacturing holds tremendous promise for the future of space exploration and beyond.

Revolutionizing Wheel Design for NASA’s VIPER Rover

NASA’s VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover) mission is set to explore the moon’s south pole in search of water ice and other valuable resources. One crucial aspect of the mission is the design and construction of the rover’s wheels, which must endure the harsh lunar terrain while ensuring optimal maneuverability. Traditionally, these wheels have been fabricated using conventional methods, which often require complicated machining processes and result in limited design possibilities.

However, thanks to a collaboration between Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and NASA engineers, a breakthrough in wheel design has been achieved through the use of additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing. The team’s 3D-printed prototype wheel rim, made from a nickel-based alloy, has shown promise in terms of robustness and durability. If further testing proves its viability, future rovers could utilize a single printed wheel rim, simplifying the manufacturing process and significantly reducing production time.

In addition to streamlining production, 3D printing also offers the freedom to incorporate precise design features that are challenging to achieve using traditional fabrication methods. The team at ORNL and NASA engineers successfully added angled sidewalls, a domed shape, and a wavy tread to increase the wheel’s stiffness, enabling a more complex spoke pattern and spoke locking features. These design enhancements not only improve performance but also showcase the capabilities of additive manufacturing in pushing the boundaries of wheel design.

Richard Hagen, a mechanical design engineer for NASA and the additive manufacturing lab manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, emphasized the significance of additive manufacturing in implementing complex design features that would be problematic with traditional tooling or machining. The process paves the way for future advancements in wheel design for lunar and Martian missions, as well as the potential for on-site manufacturing utilizing local resources.

While the 3D-printed wheel is currently 50% heavier than its aluminum counterpart, further refinements in materials and printing techniques could help bridge this weight disparity. NASA plans to subject the printed wheel to rigorous testing, assessing its maneuverability, resistance to pivoting, sideways slippage, and climbing capabilities on simulated lunar terrains. The data collected from these tests will inform future design iterations and improvements.

A key advantage of additive manufacturing is its ability to facilitate rapid design updates in response to real-world testing. As NASA plans to establish crewed research stations on the moon as part of the Artemis Program, the capability for on-site manufacturing becomes imperative. Instead of relying solely on pre-packed spare parts, additive manufacturing allows for flexible production and the creation of replacement components when needed. This ability to adapt and respond to unforeseen circumstances is critical for successful space exploration and habitation.

Beyond space exploration, additive manufacturing has garnered significant interest for various industries due to its versatility. From quickly manufacturing tooling to producing hard-to-source castings and forgings, 3D printing offers a range of applications. The potential to utilize local resources from the moon or Mars as feedstock further enhances the feasibility of on-site manufacturing in remote habitats.

The collaboration between ORNL and NASA in revolutionizing wheel design for the VIPER rover sets a new standard for additive manufacturing in space exploration. By pushing the boundaries of what is possible in wheel design and manufacturing, this breakthrough paves the way for future advancements that will enable more efficient and resilient lunar and Martian missions. As NASA continues its pursuit of scientific discoveries and sustainable human presence in space, the innovative capabilities of additive manufacturing will undoubtedly play a crucial role.

Original source


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