Two Giants Join Forces to Metal 3D Print Interstellar Rocket

NASA and Johns Hopkins APL: Into Deep Space

The edge of the solar system is termed, the heliopause. NASA says that it is the boundary between solar wind and interstellar wind. The solar wind blows outwards from the sun and forms a bubble of solar material in the interstellar medium. The heliopause is that part of the solar system which is exposed to particles and ions of deep space. Located around 11 billion miles from Earth, it is the point at which the sun’s influence as a heat source ends, and interstellar space begins. Now researchers from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) are working with NASA to develop technology for a metal 3D printed, solar-powered rocket to explore this space.

The twin spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, are still exploring this space, reaching it after 50 years, travelling 30,000 miles per hour. With NASA and the APL’s new solar propulsion system, they hope to drastically speed up this journey time and explore further into this new frontier.

What is this solar propulsion system? It is their spacecraft system that will harness hydrogen from the sun, heat it up, and then blast it out through a nozzle to produce thrust. This is instead of using combustible fuel sources. It should speed up the journey and enable far-reaching probes to study the deeper space. To do this, metal 3D printing could be utilized for the rocket’s heat shield. The spacecraft must pass incredibly close to the sun in order to perform an Oberth maneuver. As the spacecraft loops around the sun, the sun’s gravity acts like a force multiplier that increases the craft’s speed when it fires its engines. The closer the spacecraft gets to the sun, the faster it will go.

In order to get just one million miles from the sun, the heat shield should be fortified with new materials to protect it. The solar propulsion engine is planned to be integrated within the spacecraft’s shield itself. The spacecraft will have to endure two and a half hours in temperatures of 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit near the sun, so new 3D printing materials coating the outside of the shield should be able to better reflect thermal energy. Also, new materials are needed to coat the inside of the shield’s channels to prevent hot hydrogen from exploding within the shield.

Additive manufacturing has played a significant role in the testing phase of these new materials, with the scientists able to 3D print metal in the lab. Yet since 2019, NASA and the APL have been working on their ideas for the interstellar mission. They will soon present their work to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Heliophysics decadal survey.


3D Printing’s Role in Deep Space

It is amazing how 3D printing technology is helping advance man’s search and exploration of the space and still deeper space outside our Earth.