Home Research & Education Researchers 3D print Wheel Prototype for Lunar Rover with NASA

Researchers 3D print Wheel Prototype for Lunar Rover with NASA

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in collaboration with NASA, have 3D-printed a prototype wheel for a lunar rover.

Although the prototype wheel will not be used in the lunar mission, it meets the same design specifications and is undergoing additional testing to validate the method before application to future rovers for the Moon or Mars.

3D printing offers several advantages: It reduces energy consumption, material waste and lead time, while enabling complex designs and tailored material properties. The prototype wheel, printed at ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, was created with a specialized 3D printing machine that uses two coordinated lasers and a rotating build plate to selectively melt metal powder into the desired shape. Peter Wang, head of MDF development for new laser powder bed fusion systems, points out that this process significantly increases production rates thanks to simultaneous and continuous steps.

The wheel is made of a nickel-based alloy and presents itself with a size of about 20 inches in diameter and 8 inches in width. Additive manufacturing in particular has a key role to play here in enabling greater complexity in wheel design without additional cost or manufacturing difficulty. In contrast, the four VIPER wheels that are expected to travel through lunar dust next year required numerous manufacturing processes and assembly steps.

“The project with NASA really propelled the technology forward,” said Brian Gibson, the researcher who led the rover wheel project for ORNL. “It was great to connect a capability with a developing need, and the team was excited to be making a prototype component with space exploration applications.”

Despite the particular challenge of the specialized printer only working with certain materials – in this case, a nickel-based alloy – the 3D-printed wheel has a 50% higher mass than the aluminum VIPER wheel, while printed at a similar thickness.

“A lot of these wheel features were put in just to highlight what you can do with additive manufacturing,” said Richard Hagen, a mechanical design engineer for NASA and additive manufacturing lab manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “It lets you easily implement design features that are hard to implement with traditional tooling or even a traditionally machined part.”

Future rovers, if NASA tests prove the 3D-printed prototype to be as robust as conventionally built wheels, could use a single printed wheel that could be produced in 40 hours. Through the project, ORNL and NASA engineers also explored printing precise design features, such as angled sidewalls, a curved shape, and an undulating profile, to increase the wheel’s rigidity.

This innovative approach to bringing additive manufacturing into the space domain demonstrates that the boundaries of this technology are constantly being pushed and could revolutionize future missions by enabling rapid design updates, increased complexity and potentially even off-planet manufacturing capabilities.

“Being able to build parts in space for repairs will be important, because you just can’t take enough spares,” he said. “Powder, pellets or filament for printing are a lot easier to pack and would allow for more flexibility.”

“Additive manufacturing offers the flexibility that if you have the feedstock, you could make any replacement part you need, whether in space or on Earth,” Gibson said.

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