As we stand on the verge of a new era in space exploration, 3D printing plays an integral role, offering novel solutions to enhance space exploration and guide humankind’s future ventures beyond Earth. In collaboration with Caracol and D-Orbit, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the COSMIC LFAM – ESA Grand Challenge. With this competition, innovators are being called upon to redefine the space economy. With the COSMIC LFAM, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) can team up with industry pioneers, reshaping the landscape of in-orbit manufacturing, mainly through the lens of large format additive manufacturing (LFAM).
ESA has now decided to extend the application deadline for the COSMIC LFAM – ESA Grand Challenge to September 30, 2023. This significant move ensures that more SMEs can join this prestigious competition, putting their expertise to the test and presenting groundbreaking solutions for the challenges posed by in-orbit manufacturing.
“COSMIC LFAM asks competitors to devise a physical model that could eventually adapt to a composite materials additive manufacturing process to be able to operate it in an uncontrolled space environment, could that be microgravity and/or reduced gravity, vacuum and temperature variations. Or it could provide in-process monitoring capability to be able to record the parameters of the process during the manufacturing and – or – adapt Caracol’s robotic manufacturing systems to be able to operate within the constraints of a space mission, such as volume, mass, power budgets,” states the official challenge site.
With a grand prize of €100,000, the COSMIC LFAM is one of the top challenges in Europe. Aimed at transforming the space economy, this initiative promotes additive manufacturing technologies, the potential of 3D printing, and the incorporation of composite materials and polymers. Such technologies can significantly impact the approach to space exploration and in-orbit activities.
Moreover, by participating in the COSMIC LFAM challenge, SMEs can tap into ESA’s vast pool of technical expertise to advance in-orbit manufacturing. Driven by the appeal of space and ESA’s vision, participants are encouraged to address specific challenges with unconventional and disruptive approaches. This dynamic environment not only aims to find solutions to pressing space challenges but also has the potential to generate spin-off businesses and developmental opportunities.
Open to a diverse group of nations, the COSMIC LFAM invites SMEs from various countries to step up and showcase their innovations in space. Specifically, this call is open to SMEs within ESA Members, Cooperating, or Associate States. ESA Member States comprise 22 nations with full membership with the European Space Agency, including prominent countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.
On the other hand, Cooperating States encompass a group of 12 countries that, while not full members, have entered into a Cooperation Agreement with ESA. This list includes Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia, Bulgaria, and Croatia. Additionally, the category of Associate members features countries like Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These diverse regions represent a vast spectrum of SMEs eligible to participate in this groundbreaking challenge.
Onward and upward
Collaboration is the heartbeat of innovation. COSMIC LFAM promises unparalleled strategic partnership opportunities for those who wish to participate. This includes working alongside renowned Italian industry leaders like LFAM manufacturer Caracol, in-space transportation company D-Orbit, and ESA itself. Such collaboration can potentially elevate additive manufacturing, paving the way for unique developments in space.
“The aim is to support EU companies in helping them push the boundaries of additive manufacturing further, to achieve a breakthrough in the manufacturing large parts in space environments and share these learnings to lead advancements also on Earth,” says Francesco De Stefano, CEO and co-founder of Caracol.
Caracol AM shared on LinkedIn that the joint challenge with ESA and D-Orbit aims to develop state-of-the-art LFAM technologies uniquely tailored for space applications. Further emphasizing the significance of this challenge, another post by Caracol highlighted two primary goals: developing a 3D printing technique suitable for composite materials in low-gravity settings and implementing terrestrial by-products to improve the dependability or power consumption of the equivalent processes on Earth.
A shared vision between ESA, Caracol, and D-Orbit underlines the potential of AM and its many possibilities for space exploration. Most of the focus on 3D printing in space-related applications has revolved around using the technology for producing satellite components, rocket parts, and potential habitats on other planets (like using lunar or Martian regolith for 3D printing structures).
LFAM holds great promise for various industries because of its capacity to produce large, integrated parts with less waste and more design flexibility compared to traditional methods. In the context of space innovation, LFAM can potentially transform spacecraft production, satellite development, and even infrastructural projects off-Earth. NASA has delved into its potential, considering LFAM for projects like the Deep Space Habitat Concept, which anticipates 3D printed habitats on planets like Mars using local resources. The agency’s partnership with ICON, known for Earth-based construction 3D printing, also seeks to adapt these methods for space environments.
ESA has also shown great interest in the potential of AM and has several projects, studies, and initiatives related to 3D printing. In 2022 it introduced the IMPERIAL 3D printer, a revolutionary device capable of printing parts significantly larger than its size, addressing the common limitation of restricted build volume in conventional 3D printers. Designed specifically for deep space missions, this AM technology is planned to support astronauts by allowing on-demand production of structures, tools, and spare parts.
From functioning upside down on Earth to printing unlimited dimensions along one axis using high-performance polymers, this innovative project was brought to life by a consortium spearheaded by OHB in Germany, in collaboration with Azimut Space, Athlone Institute of Technology in Ireland, and BEEVERYCREATIVE in Portugal. With the prototype finalized on Earth, plans are underway to test it aboard the International Space Station (ISS). With time, as technologies mature and pass rigorous testing and validation, we can expect even broader applications of LFAM in space initiatives.
Prospective applicants who wish to apply should visit the ESA Grand Challenge page to learn more about the challenge’s scope and demands and the newly updated timeline or email firstname.lastname@example.org.