Researchers at ORNL are investigating the use of 3D printing for wheels on a lunar rover.

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Title: 3D Printing Lunar Wheels: Paving the Way for Additive Manufacturing in Space Exploration

Introduction:

The growing interest in lunar exploration has sparked a race to develop the necessary technologies to make it a reality. One crucial aspect of lunar missions is mobility on the lunar surface, and NASA’s VIPER project aims to address this need with a new series of automated rovers. Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has been enlisted to explore the feasibility of 3D printing the wheels for these lunar rovers using additive manufacturing. This blog post delves into the challenges associated with this novel manufacturing approach and its potential implications for future space exploration endeavors.

The Quest for Lightweight and Robust Wheels:

The design of the lunar wheel may seem relatively simple, but it poses unique challenges. To minimize transportation costs, the wheel must be as lightweight as possible. Moreover, since the moon has only 1/6th of Earth’s gravity, the wheel doesn’t need to withstand the same level of robustness as wheels designed for terrestrial applications. These factors contribute to the seemingly spindly design, with thin spokes that enhance lightweight properties.

The Promise and Perils of Additive Manufacturing:

NASA’s interest in 3D printing the lunar wheels stems from the potential benefits of additive manufacturing, primarily in streamlining assembly efforts and increasing part reliability. However, the main concern with laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) metal 3D printing, the chosen technique for this project, lies in the quality of the printed part. Minor discrepancies in print parameters can result in flaws and weaker metal microstructure, compromising the integrity of the component. This concern becomes more pronounced when considering the extreme temperature variations on the lunar surface, ranging from +120⁰C (250⁰F) in sunlight to -130⁰C (-208⁰F) at night. Ensuring part durability under such conditions is paramount.

Testing the Viability:

The objective of 3D printing these prototype lunar wheels at ORNL was to assess whether this manufacturing method can reliably produce parts of the required quality for lunar operations. The successful production of functional wheels would pave the way for subsequent generations of lunar system designs to be specifically tailored for additive manufacturing. While the current design remains conventional, additive manufacturing opens the door to more radical and advanced designs for lunar components that could be optimized for efficiency and performance.

Conclusion:

The ongoing work at ORNL, in collaboration with NASA, to 3D print prototype lunar wheels signifies a significant step towards embracing additive manufacturing in space exploration. While challenges regarding part quality and durability persist, this research paves the way for additive manufacturing to become a certified method for developing lunar systems. The ability to manufacture components in space with greater complexity, efficiency, and reliability would revolutionize the possibilities for future lunar missions and further our understanding of our celestial neighbor.

[Image Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory]

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