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From the printer into space

technology report online, October 2015

A materials technology revolution is brewing in the aerospace industry. In the future, resilient satellite thruster nozzles will come straight from the 3D printer. A milestone for the Heraeus 3D startup!

Satellite thruster
Satellite thruster made of precious metal powder for 3D printing.

Extreme conditions for small thruster units

Temperatures of over 1250 °C, more than 600 ignitions with no signs of wear or fatigue—this is all in a day’s work for the highly complex thruster units in a satellite’s propulsion systems. But the thruster that recently passed a hot-fire test at the Airbus Defense & Space facility in Lampoldshausen, Germany, as part of a European Space Agency (ESA) project, is something special. For the first time, it was produced entirely using a 3D printer.

Previously the thruster units, measuring only eight to ten centimeters, were assembled in a multi-step process, which Heraeus has used for years in precious metal alloys. Thanks to 3D printing, however, the process is now quicker and saves resources, since less waste is produced.

Launch of the first satellite with 3D-printed thruster nozzles already planned for 2017

The hot-fire test represents a milestone for the Heraeus’s 3D startup, which is developing the precious metal powder for 3D printing that was used in this test. The group is working to develop powders from platinum, rhodium, and iridium for creating high-strength components for thrusters on navigation satellites. The Heraeus team is currently working on a 3D printing powder from an even more resilient platinum/iridium alloy. Launch of the first satellite with 3D-printed thruster nozzles already planned for 2017.

3D startup team
Tobias Caspari (left), head of the 3D Printing startup, with a turbocharger, and Dr. Stephan Humm, research and development project manager, with the satellite nozzle.

Tobias Caspari, head of the 3D startup, about the 3D test center in Hanau

“We are working with external partners throughout the value chain on this project, and have acquired extensive experience in developing and processing metal powders, as well as with quality control. With our state-of-the art 3D test center at the Hanau site—with its own laser and electron beam printers—we already have the equipment needed to produce these thrusters.”

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