Revolutionizing Space Travel: 3D Printed Metal Engine Nozzle Set for Intuitive Machines’ Lunar Mission

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Intuitive Machines, the Houston-based space exploration company, used an electron beam additive manufacturing (EBAM) system made by Sciaky, Inc. to produce an engine nozzle for its Odysseus lunar lander. In February, the Odysseus became the first commercial lunar lander to achieve a soft landing on the moon (in the IM-1 mission) and the first US spacecraft to land on the moon in over 50 years.

Based in Chicago, Sciaky is a subsidiary of Michigan’s Phillips Service Industries, and has been making EBAM machines for over a decade. Sciaky produced three engine nozzles for Intuitive Machines — two of them for hot fire testing — made from what the company describes as “an expensive, difficult to deposit refractory alloy”.

Sciaky is a particularly interesting example of how, in many cases, metal 3D printing isn’t quite a novel innovation, so much as the natural evolution, within a digitized environment, of longstanding manufacturing principles. Sciaky has been producing electron beam welders since the 1950s, only a year before the establishment of NASA.

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In 2011, only two years after launching its EBAM service, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics selected Sciaky for the Department of Defense Mentor-Protégé Program, a longstanding federal initiative pairing corporate giants with small and medium manufacturers in support of the defense industrial base. Sciaky would thus seem to be a perfect candidate to garner government contracts at a time when, according to Wall Street Journal, “America Is Getting Ready for Space Warfare.”

Along those lines, Sciaky’s relationship with Intuitive Machines has significant potential for expansion. In April, NASA announced that Intuitive Machines was one of three companies selected to receive funding to do preliminary design work for the Lunar Terrain Vehicles (LTV) program. Aside from the need to process high quantities of refractory metals and the painstaking R&D work, the strategic competition involved in space activity makes this one of the most promising areas in the industry, currently.

For instance, around the same time as NASA announced the winning proposals for the preliminary designs for the LTV program, Japan and the US announced plans to deepen collaboration on the two nations’ respective space programs. Given that Western nations and Japan are, generally, moving closer together when it comes to deploying metal AM for strategic sectors, the LTV program has especially high potential to accelerate the US’s AM ecosystem.

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While space is certainly interesting in its own right, the most exciting angle to the space sector’s increasing use of AM is the fact that gains in manufacturing for space tend to seep into the rest of the economy. Data from processes used on spacecraft in 2024 will likely inform the processes for manufacturing all other types of vehicles for the rest of this century.

Featured image courtesy of Sciaky

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