We witnessed a triumph in American technology this week, as the Mars rover Curiosity flawlessly landed on Mars. But the ultimate goal of NASA is to send humans to Mars. This project is in the works, of course, with the next rover being designed as we speak. When we do land the first rover on Mars, the astronauts will be driving a rover with 3D-printed parts.
Desert RATS (Research and Technology Studies) is working on the prototype of the new rover, which is the size of a Hummer, and can support two humans in a pressurized cabin. Not only will it ultimately become the likely vehicle to explore Mars, but before then, perhaps, in the exploration of near-earth asteroids.
To speed the design and testing process, NASA engineers are using 3D printing to build up many of the various parts of the rover. In fact, about 70 of the parts have been created with additive manufacturing technology. The 3D printer of choice for the rover development team is a production-grade, FDM technology, Stratasys 3D printer. Some of the 3D printed parts include flame-retardant vents and housings, camera mounts, large pod doors, a large part that functions as a front bumper, electronic assembly housings and many custom fixtures.
A rover requires it be built with light-weight, durable production-grade thermoplastics that can withstand the harsh environment of other worlds, so for its 3D-printed parts, NASA uses ABS, PCABS and polycarbonate materials. In addition to end-use parts made in the thermoplastic material, NASA engineers also use 3D printers to prototype to the form, fit and function of parts they’ll eventually build in other materials. This saves the team time and money in solving design challenges before committing to expensive tooling.
The video does not talk about this, but I’m sure that the rover will carry it’s own small 3D printer to be able to crank out replacement parts on demand. It certainly takes less weight and space to carry a printer and raw material, than it does to carry one of every part that could possibly be needed.