The Road to Planetary Exploration: The Role of 3D Printing in Transporting Humans to Mars

Inconel’s Launcher Orbiter fuel tank was printed using Sapphire’s first VELO3D printer.


When you look at the growth in space launches over the past decade, it’s amazing how quickly humanity has increased the number of payloads delivered into orbit.

Utilizing the latest and most advanced manufacturing technology, space startups have made it affordable to fly payloads into space with new, upgraded and improved launch vehicles.

These launch vehicles deliver payloads into space for far less than the rockets we saw in the 1970s and 1980s. For many modern rocket engines, the cost of getting a kilogram into orbit has fallen by as much as 90%. Many of these cost improvements are made possible by new manufacturing techniques. Others are made possible by new designs. The best orbital launch systems use both.

However, what many may not realize is that 3D printing plays a huge role in manufacturing next-generation rocket engines. These are not the consumer-focused plastic 3D printers that many are familiar with. Instead, some of today’s most advanced rockets feature complex geometries that provide a real performance improvement and are made of exquisite 3D printed metal alloys primarily developed for aerospace applications.

Almost every new aerospace company is using 3D printing to produce critically important components. Some applications include turbo pumps, fuel injectors, heat exchangers, and regeneratively cooled thrust chambers and nozzles. Even traditional space organizations, such as NASA, are exploring 3D printing to drive innovation.

It’s safe to say that 3D printing plays an important role in humanity’s desire to explore space, colonize Mars, and become a multi-planetary species.

What 3D metal printing allows aeronautical engineers is the ability to produce parts without compromising their design for manufacturability. Often, engineers are required to change their most performance-optimizing designs simply because they are too complex or too expensive to reliably produce using traditional manufacturing techniques.

With 3D printing of metals, engineers are freed from these limitations.

However, this technology is used not only to produce engines, but also to create components for spacecraft and satellites.

Launcher, an aerospace startup based in Hawthorne, California, is a prime example of a company using 3D printing for both rocket engines and spacecraft.

Earlier this month, the company successfully launched the Orbiter satellite transport vehicle aboard SpaceX’s Transporter-6 mission.

The vehicle was developed to accurately put satellites into orbit at the lowest price. Previously, accomplishing this task required a dedicated launch that could cost up to 10 times as much as a flight-share launch.

Orbiter used a large number of 3D printed parts from F357 aluminum, 6AI-4V titanium, and Inconel 718 (a nickel superalloy capable of operating at very high temperatures). 3D printed parts were chosen because of the ability of 3D printing to improve performance or reduce part lead time. These parts can be seen in this drawing.

  • Tanks (Titanium 6AI-4V): Multi-purpose tanks used as primary and secondary structures as well as thrust tanks printed as one part without internal supports.
  • Thruster Bracket (F357 aluminum): This holds the thruster manifold assembly.
  • Thruster Manifold (Aluminium F357): Used for attitude control and station keeping,
    Fueling Orbiter Engine.
  • Orbital Engine Injector (InconelĀ® 718): Mixes the propellant to be burned in the engine
  • Orbital engine chambers (InconelĀ® 718): The main engine used to change orbit to position
    Oriber to properly place payloads into specific orbits.
  • Thrust Structure (Titanium 6AI-4V): Supports orbital motor and gimbal assembly.
  • Spring Housing (Titanium 6AI-4V): Hold the springs for a detachable system that
    Orbiter connects to the launch vehicle.
  • Star Camera Baffle (F357 Aluminum): Used for precision navigation to keep the Orbiter in place

Through 3D printing, Launcher was able to replicate and rapidly shorten the development time of this satellite transport vehicle. This kind of rapid iteration is one of the biggest benefits of using 3D printing to develop space applications.

Instead of developing new tools for modified parts, you simply change the design file and print a new version. After designs are finalized, metal 3D printing allows the company to ramp up production quickly, too.

In the next decade, 3D printing of metals will be one of the biggest drivers of innovation in space. Launcher is a prime example of how technology can help companies make a big impact on society – and that doesn’t stop with Orbiter. The Launcher also uses Velo3D’s 3D metal printing solutions to produce critical components for the E2 rocket engine, the closed-cycle combustion engine that powers the first stage of the light launch vehicle.

This highly efficient engine enables a small, low-cost rocket to carry a relatively large amount of payload.

When humanity eventually reaches Mars, it will be possible because of the 3D printed parts.

By Dr. Zack Murphree, Velo3d

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