NASA Wants Aerojet Rocketdyne to Make More Rocket Engines with 3D-Printed Parts

On its first launch, NASA‘s uncrewed Space Launch System (SLS) mega-rocket will go on a trip around the Moon as part of the initial test flight for the Artemis 1 mission. It will mark the beginning of one of the most talked-about space programs this year, Artemis, an ongoing government-funded crewed spaceflight initiative with the goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024, particularly, on the lunar south pole region. The most powerful rockets ever built, the SLS is in turn powered by four super engines that are designed to handle some of the most extreme temperatures as they move massive amounts of propellants to generate enough energy for the rocket to escape Earth’s gravity.

As part of a years-long working relationship with NASA, Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California, will be building a total of 24 RS-25 rocket engines to support as many as six SLS flights for a total contract value of almost $3.5 billion. Originally slated to produce six new RS-25 engines, the company has recently been awarded a $1.79 billion contract modification to build 18 additional RS-25 rocket engines to support future deep space exploration missions.

“This contract allows NASA to work with Aerojet Rocketdyne to build the rocket engines needed for future missions,” said John Honeycutt, the SLS program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “The same reliable engines that launched more than 100 space shuttle missions have been modified to be even more powerful to launch the next astronauts who will set foot on the lunar surface during the Artemis missions.”

Although the Space Shuttle Endeavour is now at a museum exhibit at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, its engines—along with those that used to power space shuttles Discovery and Atlantis—have been maintained for SLS. However, unlike the shuttles, SLS will not reuse its engines. Once the core stage falls away at around eight minutes after launch, the engines will disintegrate during reentry. There are currently 16 RS-25 engines remaining from NASA’s Space Shuttle Program that Aerojet Rocketdyne has upgraded, tested, and that are ready to support the first four SLS missions. Yet, with more SLS missions expected to launch well into the end of the decade, Aerojet Rocketdyne has been asked to build more engines; actually, six new expendable RS-25 engines are already being assembled using advanced manufacturing techniques, including 3D printing, that reduces both the cost and time for manufacturing each engine.

The additional 18 engines will continue to leverage supply chain optimization and the incorporation of additive manufacturing (AM) techniques that were already introduced in the initial SLS engine production.

Initial SLS Configuration, powered by RS-25 rocket engines (Credits: NASA)

Employing AM technology to reduce costs and improve the efficiency of its engines is among the top priorities of the aerospace and defense company. Aerojet Rocketdyne’s senior engineer on the Additive Manufacturing team, Alan Fung, told that hundreds of people have been working on the design, development, and manufacture of the engines which relies mainly on laser powder bed fusion technology to additively manufacture at least 35 parts on each engine. 

“Our primary focus is to make reliable, robust printed parts, that will work 100 percent of the time. We started designing some of these pieces a couple of years ago to make sure they were tested and certified for NASA’s space program, which is crucial to the safety of the upcoming crewed missions,” said Fung. 

AM Team at Aerojet Rocketdyne, from left to right: Bryan Webb, Ivan Cazares, and Alan Fung (Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne)

With the delivery of these new engines scheduled to begin in 2023, the team is not wasting any time. Fung said that “part of the big quest in the first round was to work with NASA closely on developing the certification processes.” Revealing that “we now have a process to make parts using AM that we know is safe and it is exactly what we need to make sure that our parts will work on the engines that will power future SLS missions.”

3D printing simplifies the production of several RS-25 parts and components, making the engine more affordable to produce while increasing reliability. With fewer part welds, the structural integrity of the engine increases. This is a very manual, complex manufacturing process. In fact, rocket engines are so complicated to build, that only a handful of countries have been able to manufacture them.

“That’s where AM really shined for us. We were able to get rid of many welding joints and just incorporate the processes automatically, getting down the part count and reducing the load across the engine,” said Fung.

One of the largest 3D-printed components of the engine was the critical “Pogo” accumulator assembly. Roughly the size of a beach ball, the complex piece of hardware acts as a shock absorber to reduce oscillations caused by propellants as they flow between the vehicle and the engine. Fung described the 3D-printed component as a critical part of the engine because it helps smooth the ride for astronauts and the vehicle ensuring a safe flight. Moreover, he explained that the Pogo used to demand more than 100 weld joints that had to be done manually and took almost four years to make, while the 3D-printed Pogo developed at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s factory in Los Angeles, brought the welds down to just three, and was finished in less than a year.

Some of these modified components have already been tested during engine tests that replicate the conditions of flight. For example, during a 400-second test at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, Aerojet Rocketdyne was able to successfully evaluate the performance of the 3D printed Pogo accumulator assembly.

“We expect that more and more engines will be additively manufactured in the future, leaving behind a lot of traditional rocket engine manufacturing processes that are very difficult, and allowing us to print more engines. Eventually, the time to build is going to go down even more, especially as the industry gears towards incorporating more lasers and bigger machines; which is good for us, because our engines keep getting a little bit bigger than the last ones. So, when those machines get to be bigger, use more lasers, and print parts faster, then that’s when we will see a really big shift in the way we make rocket engines,” went on Fung. 

Artemis I RS-25 Engines (Credits: Aerojet Rocketdyne)

Working with NASA, Aerojet has implemented a plan to reduce the cost of the engines by more than 30% on future production when compared to the versions that flew on the Space Shuttle, all thanks to more advanced manufacturing techniques, like AM, that help the engineers modify some of the rocket components.

During the flight, the four engines will provide the SLS with around two million pounds of thrust to send the heavy-lift rocket to space. The rocket engines are mounted at the base of a 212-foot-tall core stage, which holds more than 700,000 gallons of propellant and provides the flight computers that control the rocket’s flight.

The AM team at Aerojet is using GE Concept Laser and EOS machines for its selective laser melting requirements. Fung said they were using superalloys, mostly nickel-based for the engine parts being 3D printed, due to its outstanding corrosion resistance, high strength, and ability to resist hydrogen embrittlement due to the hydrogen fuels found in most of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s liquid propellant rocket engines.

“These new RS-25 engines are an upgrade from the Space Shuttle engines, which were already some of the most reliable engines made in history. Engineers spent 40 years making the shuttle engines as reliable, safe and high performance as possible; but with additive manufacturing we thought we could also try to get the cost down. This technology will revolutionize the way we build engines” 

With so many challenges ahead, having certified rocket engines to take the next lunar explorers to orbit feels like a stepping stone for the journey that lies ahead. After all, the SLS rocket is part of NASA’s backbone for deep space exploration and will prepare humans for long-duration space travel and the eventual journey to Mars.

Space Launch System (SLS) (Credits: NASA)

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U.S. Air Force & GE Collaborate in Parts Certification, 3D Print F110 Sump Cover

A collaboration that began last year between GE Additive and GE Aviation and the U.S. Air Force is now coming to fruition. As the U.S. Air Force sought help with creating a metal additive airworthiness and certification path, beginning mid-2019, they received a proposal from GE offering a streamlined plan for readiness, affordability, and sustainment in an AM program.

With some aircraft reaching 60 years of service for the military, the U.S. Air Force’s Rapid Sustainment Office (RSO) began considering better ways to perform maintenance and manufacture spare parts. As the GE team reached out to the ROS, they realized that GE had the experience in qualifying and certifying AM parts that they required.

“The RSO is excited to partner with GE Additive and its efforts to deliver additively manufactured parts for the Air Force,” said Nathan Parker, deputy program executive officer for the RSO who oversees and provides funding for the project with GE. “Their successes will help ensure our systems rapidly obtain the high-quality parts they need to stay flying and at the ready.”

Additively manufactured, cobalt-chrome sump cover for F110 engine. (Photo: GE Additive, GEADPR035)

As continued proponents of 3D printing and additive manufacturing processes—for years, before most people were even aware of such technology—both GE Additive and a variety of different military divisions have continued to innovate, expanding AM facilities around the world, developing new materials, and creating new parts for U.S. Air Force planes and even runways. In this partnership, the two organizations have developed a multi-phased program that ascends in both complexity and scale as each phase is completed.

“The Air Force wanted to go fast from day one and gain the capability and capacity for metal additive manufacturing, as rapidly as possible, to improve readiness and sustainability,” explains Lisa Coroa-Bockley, general manager for advanced materials solutions at GE Aviation.

“Speed is additive’s currency, and by applying our additive experiences with the LEAP fuel nozzle and other parts additively printed for the GE9X, being able to offer an end-to-end solution and also applying lessons learned of a robust certification processes, we’ve been able to accelerate the pace for the USAF,” added Coroa-Bockley.

The program, based on a spiral development model, begins with basic part identification and then moves forward to part consolidation and certifying more complicated systems like common core heat exchangers.

“The collaborative effort between the US Air Force and GE shows great promise toward the adoption of metal 3D printed parts as an option to solve the US Air Force’s current and future sustainment challenges. This capability provides an alternate method to source parts for legacy propulsion systems throughout their life cycle, especially when faced with a diminishing supplier base or when infrequent demands or low volume orders are not attractive to traditional manufacturers,” said Colonel Benjamin Boehm, director, AFLCMC/LP Propulsion Directorate.

So far, the collaborative team has completed Phase 1, identifying GE Aviation spare parts for the F110 and TF34 engines, and then evaluating and proving their readiness for flight. Work had already been started on a sump cover (in use already for F-15 and F-16 aircraft) for the General Electric F110 engine, and it became the focal point of the first phase in the program.

Phase 1b, in the planning stages, will reflect continued complexity in the stages, as the team works on a sump cover housing. This is a ‘family of parts’ currently found on the TF34 engine—part of an aircraft that has been in use for over four decades.

“Re-engineering legacy parts and additively manufacturing low quantities of traditionally cast parts has incredible potential to improve USAF supportability. It’s worth our focus to develop a fast, highly repeatable process,” said Melanie Jonason, chief engineer for the propulsion sustainment division at Tinker Air Force Base (AFB).

Excited about the project from the beginning, Jonason is working with the GE Aviation military team, the chief engineer, Dr. Matt Szolwinski, James Bonar, and a team of GE Additive engineers.

“Compared to other parts on the F110 engine, the sump cover might have lower functionality, but is incredibly important. It needs to be durable, form a seal and it needs to work for the entire engine to function – which is of course critical on a single engine aircraft like the F-16,” said James Bonar, engineering manager at GE Additive.

GE Additive and GE Aviation have worked together closely in designing the aluminum sump cover—with the first builds produced on GE Additive Concept Laser M2 machines running cobalt-chrome at their Additive Technology Center (ATC) in Cincinnati.

Beth Dittmer

“The program with GE is ahead of schedule and the preliminary work already done on the sump cover has allowed us to move forward quickly. As we build our metal additive airworthiness plan for the Air Force, the completion of each phase represents a significant milestone as we take a step closer to getting an additive part qualified to fly in one of our aircraft,” said Beth Dittmer, division chief, propulsion integration at Tinker AFB.

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GE Aviation F110 engine.

[Source / Images: Source / Images: GE Additive]

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NASA Seeks Proposals to Advance AM Techniques for High Temperature Materials

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is seeking proposals from university research teams to develop unique, disruptive, and transformational space technologies that are currently at low technology readiness levels (TRL) but have the potential to lead to dramatic improvements at the system level. One of the topics of the Space Technology Research Grants (STRG) Program, Early Stage Innovations (ESI) appendix focuses on the advancement of additive manufacturing (AM) processing techniques for high-temperature materials.

Supporting education and research is a great way to advance the space exploration capabilities of NASA. In fact, according to the space agency, investment in innovative low-TRL research increases knowledge and capabilities in response to new questions and requirements; stimulates innovation, and allows more creative solutions to problems constrained by schedule and budget. Further suggesting that investment in fundamental research activities has historically benefited the United States by generating new industries and spin-off applications.

As an extension of the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), the STRG Program is fostering the development of innovative, low-TRL technologies for advanced space systems. The goal of this particular endeavor is to accelerate the development of groundbreaking, high-risk but high-payoff, space technologies. It is not necessarily directed at a specific mission, but instead will support the future space exploration and science needs of NASA, other government agencies, and the commercial space sector; especially as plans for space colonization, lunar exploration, and future journeys to Mars advance.

Universities help drive many NASA projects today, researching everything from cube sat 3D printing to aerospace high-volume manufacturing. This new NASA solicitation is only for accredited US university proposals, and the research teams that apply for the STRG program can choose to focus on the advancement of AM processing techniques to improve properties of high-temperature refractory metals, particularly tungsten and tungsten alloys, as well as other refractory metals and alloys.

Deep space exploration mission prep (Credit: NASA)

As described by the agency, all the submitted proposals working on additive manufacturing processing techniques for refractory metals should address at least one of the following research areas:

  • Improving high-temperature material properties,
  • Improving surface roughness from the AM process to minimize future post-processing needs,
  • Altering surface characteristics to tailor emissivity and wetting properties (for example, to make them either hydrophobic or hydrophilic),
  • Developing AM techniques to eliminate/minimize porosity and microcracking of AM parts,
  • Developing post-processing techniques to eliminate/minimize the porosity and microcracking of AM parts,
  • Developing techniques and processes to improve the grain structure of AM refractory metals,
  • Developing AM techniques capable of fabricating with multiple metals at once, one of which is a refractory metal or alloy,
  • Developing refractory alloys that provide optimal properties for parts fabricated by AM methods.

Due to their high melting points and density, refractory metals and alloys are capable of operating at extreme temperatures and have become the frontrunners for many high-temperature aerospace components, as well as other high-temperature applications, such as nuclear reactors, electric furnaces, and welding.

Of all the metals in pure form, tungsten has the highest melting point of 6,192°F (3,422°C) and is often alloyed with other metals for strength. As some of the toughest materials found in nature, refractory metals could be ideal for spacecraft applications that have to endure severe heat during space travel. Space shuttles, for example, used to face intense temperatures when re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, as high as 3000°F (1649°C). If space adventurers expect to travel to Mars and beyond, spacecraft need to be protected, and this early-stage research could determine the bases for the future development of protection needed for safe space journeys.

The aerospace industry is increasingly turning to AM for thermal management systems that are capable of operating at extreme temperatures. The agency proposed integrated thermal management systems as one example where additive manufacturing plays a fundamental role in enabling technology. High-temperature thermal management systems are potentially disruptive to a wide range of high-temperature NASA applications such as wing leading-edge systems, solar probes, and Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP); and can benefit from improvements in the fabrication of refractory metal casing materials.

During this early stage research, NASA is solely focused on manufacturing under Earth’s gravity, and there is still no mention of demonstrating additive manufacturing capabilities in space. However, we can probably expect that as this research moves forward, zero gravity fabrication will be of interest.

European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano tests experiments in space (Credit: NASA)

With a maximum award of $650,000 for a research period of three years or less, this research grant represents a great opportunity for academics focusing on AM processing techniques.

NASA considers that these investments create, fortify, and nurture the talent base of highly skilled engineers, scientists, and technologists to improve the country’s technological and economic competitiveness. The ESI Appendix challenges universities to examine the theoretical feasibility of new ideas and approaches that are critical to making science, space travel, and exploration more effective, affordable, and sustainable.

Historically black colleges and universities along with other minority-serving institutions are encouraged to submit proposals. Moreover, NASA encourages submission of ESI proposals by women, members of underrepresented minority groups, persons with disabilities, and faculty members who are early in their career.

As NASA seeks to develop unique, disruptive, and transformational space technologies, university researchers get a chance to participate in the next generation of space exploration efforts, that are a complement to many of the agency’s ongoing programs. The solicitation is available here and universities have time until May 20, 2020, to present their notice of intent, and until June 17, 2020, for proposals.

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CRP Technology Makes 3D Printed PocketQube Satellite Deployer for Alba Orbital

First there were the smallsats, and the CubeSats. Now there’s something even smaller to launch into orbit – PocketQubes, a satellite with off-the-shelf electronic components that can fit into your pocket. One eighth the volume of a CubeSat, these tiny space research satellites are 5 cm cubed, with a mass of 250 grams, and while they were only conceived of about ten years ago, interest in them is growing quickly, as it’s becoming more expensive to launch CubeSats into low Earth orbit.

Two years ago, the first PocketQube Standard was issued, and one of the contributors is Scottish high-tech SME Alba Orbital. The company supports this satellite class, as it builds its own PocketQube platforms and provides global companies, space agencies, and universities parts and launches.

Alba Orbital needed to improve the access and manufacturability, and reduce the weight, of its PocketQube satellite deployer, the AlbaPod 2.0, along with adding some new safety features, and is partnering with CRP Technology on the project. The Italian 3D printing company has used its patented Windform TOP-LINE composite materials for aerospace applications in the past, so it was more than up to the task.

3D printed AlbaPod 2.0 on vibration table going through pre-flight certification.

First, CRP analyzed the 2D and 3D files for the deployer, so it could best advise Alba Orbital on which material to use with its Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) process. The high-performance Windform XT 2.0 carbon composite material was chosen, thanks to its increased tensile strength, elongation at break, and tensile modulus.

“As the product needed to withstand a launch to space while containing several satellites, the pod needed to withstand high vibrations, and in the worst scenario, contain any satellite that breaks free internally,” said the Alba Orbital team. “Windform ® XT 2.0’s toughness and strength make it a perfect candidate for this use case.”

3D printed AlbaPods 2.0 in Windform XT 2.0.

Weight reduction is another important design goal for aerospace parts, and the material needs to be flight-approved due to strict degassing rules in space. Windform XT 2.0 has already been approved by major launch providers, making it an easy choice for the launcher.

“Windform® XT 2.0 is a non-outgassing, lightweight fibre reinforced polyamide plastic very similar to Nylon. The material combined with the manufacturing technique allowed us the option to design parts that can not be manufactured with traditional techniques, with thin sections and extremely complex geometry’s, and these parts can be manufactured and delivered in a fraction of the time for a traditional supply chain,” Alba Orbital said.

Fully loaded 3D printed AlbaPod 2.0 for flight – rear cover removed for inspection.

Once Alba Orbital sent the final STP file, CRP Technology quickly created the lightweight AlbaPod v2, a 3D printed deployer for PocketQube-compatible satellites, flight-proven 6P (up to six satellites) and weighing 60% less than the AlbaPod v1.

“The most innovative aspect of the project was the sheer number of components we switched over to Windform ® XT 2.0, not only was the shell redesigned in the material, but also the moving ejection mechanism and door assembly,” Alba Orbital notes.

The 3D printed AlbaPod v2 PocketQube deployer complies with Alba Orbital’s standards, and after performing many tests on the device, Alba Orbital says it has passed the control criteria.

3D printed AlbaPod 2.0 vibration testing.

“This is critical,” they said about the part’s mechanical performance. “Not only does the full assembly need to function correctly to facilitate the deployment of the satellites inside, but must also contain the satellites in the event of catastrophic failure of a payload during the launch as anything breaking free could fatally damage other payloads or the launch vehicle itself. This was tested thoroughly with free masses on vibration tables at extremely high loading and the shell held up phenomenally.

“Additionally weight is a major concern with anything going into space due to the costs associated, utilising Windform ® XT 2.0 allowed us to reduce the mass of a number of major components.”

Integrations began this fall, and six PocketQube satellites were launched into orbit by Alba Orbital in December on the 3D printed AlbaPod v2. The Alba Cluster 2 mission was in orbit for 100 days, and a launch via the 3D printed AlbaPod v2 for the Alba Cluster 3 mission is expected to occur later this year.

“3D printing allows us to rapidly improve design and customise/create bespoke launchers in the future for demanding payloads which may fall outside the Pocketqube standards or require special considerations,” Alba Orbital said.

“It will also allow the fast integration of new release mechanisms allowing us to switch manufacturers comparatively quickly and easily if problems with supply chain arise.”

The first of the two fully loaded AlbaPod 2.0 being attached to the kick stage of Rocket Labs Electron rockets for launch.

The AlbaPod v2 manufacturing experience will be presented this October 8th and 9th at the 4th Annual PocketQube Workshop 2020, held in the Glasgow University Union. The event brings together top innovators from the PocketQube community so they can explore the technology.

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(Images: Courtesy of Alba Orbital)

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Titomic Signs Agreement with Airbus to Make 3D Printed Metal Demonstrator Parts

Global aerospace leader Airbus develops, creates, and delivers innovative solutions in the commercial aircraft, defense, helicopter, space, and security sectors, and has long been a champion of using additive manufacturing to do so. Airbus installed its first 3D printer back in 2012, and used its first metal 3D printed part – a titanium bracket – in one of its commercial jetliners just two years later. Now, over 1,000 3D printed parts are used in its A350 XWB aircraft.

In order to deliver 3D printed aerospace solutions, the European aircraft manufacturing giant has partnered up with many big names in the industry, from Local Motors and Materialise to Premium AEROTEC and GE Aviation, and just today announced a new collaboration. Australian large-scale, industrial AM company Titomic has just reached a major agreement with Airbus, which will use the Melbourne company’s patented Titomic Kinetic Fusion (TKF) technology to demonstrate high-performance metal parts.

“We are pleased to partner with Airbus for this initial aerospace part made with Titomic Kinetic Fusion® (TKF), the world’s largest and fastest industrial-scale metal additive manufacturing process,” stated Titomic CEO Jeff Lang in a press release. “The TKF process ideally suited to produce near-net shape metal parts for the aerospace industry using our patented process of fusing dissimilar metals that cannot be produced with either traditional fabrication methods or metal-based 3D printers.”

TKF is the result of a Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) study, when Australia’s government was looking to capitalize on its titanium resources. Titomic’s proprietary TKF technology platform uses a process similar to cold spray, and has no limits in terms of build shape and size. A 6-axis robot arm sprays titanium powder particles, at supersonic speeds, onto a scaffold in order to build up complex parts layer by layer.

Thanks to its unique AM technology, Titomic can provide its customers with production run capabilities, which helps rapidly create excellent products, with decreased material waste, that have lower production inputs.

“3D printing, of which TFK is the leading technology, has the potential to be a game changer post the global COVID-19 pandemic supply chain disruption as aircraft manufacturers look to reduce production costs, increase performance, improve supply chain flexibility and reduce inventory costs, and TKF, co-developed with the CSIRO, can be an integral part of this change,” said Lang.

“Regulations force aerospace manufacturers to provide spare parts for long periods after the sale of an aircraft, so it’s not rocket science to assume they will be early adopters of 3D printing solutions for spare-part management.”

The Titomic Kinetic Fusion process involves a 6-axis robot arm spraying titanium powder particles onto a scaffold at supersonic speeds.

TKF technology could be crucially important for aircraft manufacturers, like Airbus, as the field of aviation is one of the largest customers of titanium alloy products. That’s why Titomic has invested in further developing AM so it can meet the material, process, and design qualification system that’s required by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The company will work to develop TKF 3D printing material properties and parts process parameters for Airbus.

This agreement, the future delivery of the 3D printed demonstrator parts to Airbus, and a technology review process of said parts, all validate the certification process that Titomic’s government-funded IMCRC research project, with partners RMIT and CSIRO, is currently undergoing.

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Techshot’s Bioprinter Successfully Fabricates Human Menisci in Space

Current Bioprinting in space could become a pathway that guides future decisions for biofabrication on Earth as well as in orbit. Astronauts have already used two bioprinters on the International Space Station (ISS), experimenting with human bone tissue and even heart tissue. Interest in creating these machines arose as Earth’s gravity was making printing functional organ-like structures quite challenging, making the space environment a feasible alternative. Techshot, a commercial space company, chose to develop a BioFabrication Facility (BFF) that has been mounted inside the ISS U.S. National Laboratory and is being used by astronauts on board since last summer. This week the company announced that the space-based 3D bioprinter was used to successfully manufacture human knee cartilage test prints in space.

Techshot’s BFF, which aims to print organ-like tissues that could one day lead to 3D printing human organs in space for transplants, was used to successfully manufacture test prints of a partial human meniscus aboard the ISS last month. The meniscus pattern was manufactured for the company’s customer: the 4D Bioprinting, Biofabrication, and Biomanufacturing (4D Bio3) program, which is based at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU). The program is a collaboration between the university and The Geneva Foundation, a non-profit organization that advances military medical research.

BioFabrication Facility Patch (Image: Techshot)

Manufacturing human tissue in the microgravity conditions of space could ultimately aid in the race to manufacture hearts and other organs using a 3D bioprinter. Although the actual fabrication of functional organs that could finally replace the shortage of donor organs to help patients in need of a transplant could be a decade away – if not more – the team at Techshot was optimistic around this project since research in space might illuminate a lot of the work done on Earth.

In the last six months, astronauts, like NASA’s flight engineer Christina Koch, have tested the ability of the BFF to print cells. Using adult human cells (such as stem or pluripotent cells) and adult tissue-derived proteins as its bioink, the BFF is able to create viable tissue.

Astronaut Jessica Meir is using the BFF at the International Space Station (Image: Techshot)

According to the ISS U.S. National Lab, although researchers have had some success with 3D printing of bones and cartilage on Earth, the manufacturing of soft human tissue (such as blood vessels and muscle) has been difficult. What they claim occurs is that, on Earth, when attempting to print with soft, easily flowing biomaterials, tissues collapse under their own weight, resulting in little more than a puddle; but if these same materials are produced in the microgravity environment of space, the 3D printed structures will keep their shapes.

A meniscus, which is a crescent-shaped disc of soft cartilage that sits between the femur and the tibia, acts as a significant cushion or shock absorber, yet when the meniscus tears, the cushioning effect functions poorly, leading to arthritis and knee pain. Meniscal injuries are one of the most commonly treated orthopedic injuries and have a much higher incidence in military service members and sports players.

Early in March, Techshot sent equipment and samples supporting plant, heart and cartilage research for three of its customers to the ISS on SpaceX mission CRS-20. Astronauts on-board the station used the BFF to manufacture human knee menisci as a test of the materials and the processes required to print a meniscus in space. According to Techshot, the first experiment for 4D Bio3 aboard the ISS U.S. National Laboratory served as a test of the materials and the processes required to print a meniscus in space. Astronaut Andrew Morgan, a medical doctor and graduate of USU loaded biomaterials into BFF, while Techshot engineers uploaded a customer-provided design file to the printer from the company’s Payload Operations Control Center (POCC) located in Greenville, Indiana, from which the devices in space are controlled. The success of the print was evaluated via real-time video from inside the unit.

“Some of our criteria for mission success, such as the ability to work with customer-specified print materials and customer-supplied design files, were met before we even launched back on March 6,” said Techshot Senior Scientist Carlos Chang. “But commanding BFF to print from here at Techshot, and watching it all literally come together in real-time, provided the confirmation we needed that we’re on the right track.”

Founded more than 30 years ago, Techshot operates its own commercial research equipment in space and serves as the manager of NASA-owned ISS payloads – such as the Advanced Plant Habitat and two materials-science research furnaces. The company provides its catalog of equipment and services for a fee to those with their own independent research programs – serving as a one-stop resource for organizations seeking access to space. And launched to the station in July 2019 aboard SpaceX CRS-18, the BFF has been tested since. Techshot has even suggested that biomaterials for a second meniscus print, which will be returned to Earth for more extensive testing, will launch on a later SpaceX mission.

As astronauts stationed at the ISS U.S. National Lab continue to advance work with Techshot’s 3D bioprinter and microgravity research, we can expect to hear more about the cutting edge science that is being done that aims to improve patient care. The technology offers a unique opportunity to support bioprinting structures and construct tissues, providing an ideal scenario that will enable remarkable changes to move forth the medicine of the future.

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Stratodyne: New Space Company Wants to 3D Print Stratospheric Satellites and CubeSats

With a growing directory of space companies gaining momentum, research and development in rocket science, aerospace engineering, and space travel are at an all-time high. After a continuous decrease in orbital launches since the early 1990s, companies began sending payloads into orbit in the mid-2000s, and whether successful or not (although usually successful), the sharp string of experimental technology for spacecraft, rockets, and space exploration vehicles has quickly revved up our faith in the space industry. Rocket launches have been streaming online more often than ever before and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is leveling the playing field to allow for students and space researchers everywhere to sent forth their creations into orbit.
With over 100 startup space companies competing in the vast commercialization of space, many college students are beginning to see an opportunity in the field. Such is the case with Stratodyne, a startup working on applying additive manufacturing technology towards spaceflight and stratospheric science, which involves having balloon-borne stratospheric satellites at the edge of Earth’s atmosphere for mission lengths of days, weeks, and even months at a time.
Founded in January of this year by 20-year old Edward Ge, a finance major from the University of Missouri, along with a few of his High School and college friends, the startup company is focused around applying advances in 3D printing technology to lower costs for space and high altitude research.

The completed vehicle with the CubeSat frame that houses the payload (Image: Stratodyne) spoke to the young entrepreneur, who described his company as “originally envisioned as a manufacturer of CubeSat frames and a provider of testing services in near-space conditions due to the lack of affordable parts and services in the CubeSat industry.” However, along with fellow founders, he decided to pursue a multi-role route with their ideas, seeking to create a 3D printed modular and remotely controlled airship that could serve as a satellite, testbed, and even a launch platform for small rockets into space.
“As part of our development towards a 3D printed stratospheric satellite and 3D printing CubeSats, we recently launched a small prototype consisting of a CubeSat, a truss, and an engine frame with twin solar-powered drone motors to an altitude of 27 kilometers. All the components were 3D printed out of common thermoplastic polymers ABS and ASA, with the exception of the solar-powered motor and onboard electronics and parachute,” said Ge. “The flight lasted a total of six hours, with our experimental motor nearly doubling the flight time of the balloon. We intend to perform another launch in April using a prototype altitude control system with the aim of having the stratospheric satellite remain aloft for 24 hours straight.”
To deal with all their 3D printing needs, Ge and fellow founders currently have multiple machines at their disposal. The University of Missouri has loaned them a Stratasys FDM machine 400mc which uses polycarbonate to manufacture parts for sounding rockets and even satellites, multiple Prusa open-source 3D printers, and a custom-built CNC printer in the works.

Edward Ge next to one of the 3D printing machines, a Stratasys FDM, that Stratodyne is using to create their CubeSats (Image: Stratodyne)

Ge, who acts as both CFO and CEO of the company, indicated that “these machines give us a massive range of materials to work with but at the moment we primarily use parts made from Polycarbonate, thermoplastic polymers ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) and ASA (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), and are even experimenting with Nylon powder and laser printing.”

In the early months of the company, they experimented with 3D printed rockets before deciding that it just wasn’t feasible to develop a true launch system with the resources and budget at hand. At the time, the plan was to crowdfund the development of a 3D printed sounding rocket comparable to the ones Black Brant used by NASA or rockets from Up Aerospace for an estimated program cost of $40,000. Ge does not exclude working with rockets in the future, he considers that there is still an experimental 3D printed composite rocket motor on the drawing board, but the majority of the work has pivoted towards stratospheric satellites since it will take a lower cost to commercialize.

“We plan on launching a crowdfunding campaign soon, once our weather balloon altitude control valve goes past the prototype stage which should be around April. During the summer months of June and July, the plan is to begin pitching to venture capital companies in the Midwest or go back to our plan of crowdfunding development with tangible prototypes and successful flights under our belt,” explained Ge. “However, we know that crowdfunding is fickle, and would only use it to generate a surplus for us to pursue stretch goals such as upscaling the stratospheric satellites or resuming development of a high altitude launch vehicle.  On the technical side, our plan is to have regular flights every two to three weeks on weather balloons to flesh out the altitude control system and engine work.”

Stratodyne plans to go commercial by mid-2021, but for now, the majority of their planning is on an R&D phase. Ge expects that this may change depending on how fast their pace is and how much venture capital funding they get.

The completed vehicle during its ascent (Image: Stratodyne)

“The ultimate goal of Stratodyne is to make space something that is accessible to, not just big corporations or governments, but to your average High School student or the typical guy you’d find on the street. It might sound like a cliché – and it is since every startup says that – but it’s something that needs to happen if we are ever going to be a truly spacefaring species and that’s one goal we can all believe in,” concluded Ge.
Although they are still working on an official webpage, Stratodyne’s news can be found at their Instagram account: @stratodynecorp. The young business partners are proving that their generation is ready to take risks to create what they expect is an undeniable force on the horizon, in this case, the space horizon. Although it is a new company, born only two months ago, the team shows great determination and vision, and are moving very fast, in part thanks to 3D printing providing the necessary tools and autonomy to develop whatever they need, to make their dream a reality.

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The Countdown to the “Don’t Stop Me Now” Mission Has Begun for Rocket Labs

Space is one of the most attractive frontiers for humans and 2020 has been one of the most exciting years for space exploration. For starters, companies are sending rockets to space, uncrewed rockets that is, at least for now, as they prepare for future missions to the Moon and later on, to Mars. March is not over yet and we have already witnessed 17 successful rocket launches to orbit. And space technology company Rocket Lab is quickening the pace, now planning its second mission set to launch by the end of the month.

Called “Don’t Stop Me Now”, the next mission launch will deploy payloads for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra Space.

Founded in New Zealand in 2006 by engineer Peter Beck, Rocket Lab is well known for 3D printing lightweight, high-performance rocket engines, like the Rutherford. The payload on the next mission will launch aboard the company’s Electron rocket, Rocket Lab’s twelfth Electron launch since the company began launches in May 2017.

Overall, this mission will enable university research into Earth’s magnetic field, support the testing of new smallsat comms architecture, and demonstrate a fast, commercial approach for getting government small satellites into space, which helps advance scientific and human exploration.

Rocket Lab’s next launch will be the second for the NRO, a major US intelligence agency, the first one was on board the company’s last dedicated mission, “Birds of a Feather”, which was launched aboard a Rocket Lab Electron rocket on January 31 from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1, in New Zealand.

Rocket Lab’s last Electron mission also deployed NRO satellites (Image: Rocket Lab)

Beck said the mission is a great example of the kind of cutting-edge research and fast-paced innovation that small satellites are enabling.

“It’s a privilege to have NASA and the NRO launch on Electron again, and we’re excited to welcome the UNSW onto our manifest for the first time, too,” he went on. “We created Electron to make getting to space easy for all, so it’s gratifying to be meeting the needs of national security payloads and student research projects on the same mission.”

Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder (Image: Rocket Lab)

According to the company, the rideshare mission will launch several small satellites, including the ANDESITE (Ad-Hoc Network Demonstration for Extended Satellite-Based Inquiry and Other Team Endeavors) satellite created by electrical and mechanical engineering students and professors at Boston University (BU). The satellite will launch as part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) and will conduct a groundbreaking scientific study into Earth’s magnetic field.

Once in space, the ANDESITE satellite will initiate measurements of the magnetosphere with onboard sensors, later releasing eight pico satellites carrying small magnetometer sensors to track electric currents flowing in and out of the atmosphere, a phenomenon also known as space weather. These variations in electrical activity racing through space can have a big impact on our lives here on Earth, causing interruptions to things like radio communications and electrical systems.

The ANDESITE satellite follows on from Rocket Lab’s first Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) launch for NASA, the ELaNa-19 mission, which launched a host of educational satellites to orbit on Electron in December 2018, as part of an initiative to attract and retain students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The mission also carries three payloads designed, built and operated by the NRO. The mission was procured under the agency’s Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract vehicle. RASR allows the NRO to explore new launch opportunities that provide a streamlined, commercial approach for getting small satellites into space, as well as provide those working in the small satellite community with timely and cost-effective access to space.

“We’re excited to be partnering with Rocket Lab on another mission under our RASR contract,” indicated Chad Davis, Director of NRO’s Office of Space Launch. “This latest mission is a great example of the collaborative nature of the space community and our goal as space partners to procure rideshare missions that not only meet our mission needs but provide opportunities for those working with smallsats to gain easy access to space.”

A statement by the company also suggests that the ANDESITE and NRO payloads will be joined on the mission by the M2 Pathfinder satellite, a collaboration between the UNSW Canberra Space and the Australian Government. The M2 Pathfinder will test communications architecture and other technologies that will assist in informing the future space capabilities of Australia. The satellite will demonstrate the ability of an onboard software-based radio to operate and reconfigure while in orbit.

The Spacecraft Project Lead at UNSW Canberra and space systems engineer, Andrin Tomaschett, revealed that “we’re very excited to be launching M2 Pathfinder with Rocket Lab who have been so very flexible in accommodating our spacecraft specific needs, let alone the ambitious nine-month project timeframe. The success of this spacecraft will unlock so much more, for our customers and for Australia, by feeding into the complex spacecraft projects and missions our team is currently working on.”

While NASA Launch Services Program (LSP) ELaNa Mission Lead, Scott Higginbotham, considered that through the CubeSat Launch Initiative, NASA engages the next generation of space explorers, providing university teams, like ANDESITE, with real-life, hands-on experience in conducting an actual space research mission in conjunction with NASA.

Named in recognition of Rocket Lab board member and avid rock band Queen fan Scott Smith, who recently passed away, the mission will have a 14-day launch window that opens on March 27, at New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula. The best way audiences can view the launch is via Rocket Lab’s live video webcast: a live stream will be made available approximately 15 to 20 minutes prior to the launch attempt. If you are a serial space observer and follow all news relating to 3D printed rockets, launches, commercialization of low Earth orbit, and more, stay up to date with our articles at

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Long Beach: The New Site for Relativity Space’s 3D Printed Rockets

Commercial space companies are looking to get their technology to orbit. This decade could mark a big shift in the race for space domination, with a few big names taking over Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and beyond. Moreover, as NASA begins to transition the domain of LEO to the commercial space industry, these enterprises are preparing to make up the backbone of their engines, rockets, and space crew vehicles to travel beyond Earth. On that path, is Relativity Space, a Los Angeles based startup that is quickly expanding its commercial orbital launch services. Just today, CEO and co-founder, Tim Ellis, announced that it has secured new headquarters in Long Beach, California.

Relativity is using Stargate 3D printers to make big and small parts, like this sub-scale vessel designed for pressure testing (Image: Relativity Space)

The 120,000 square feet site will house both the company’s business operations and an unprecedented manufacturing facility, as they will be producing the their 3D printed rocket, the Terran 1, a launch vehicle that the company plans to build in only 60 days from raw materials and by 3D printing the structure as well as the engine. The company is already printing large-scale, flight-ready parts of their Terran 1 rocket and this move to the new headquarters will give them five times the space to add more Stargate 2.0 3D printers, print higher structures and parts, even assemble and load rocket sections onto trucks to ship to Cape Canaveral for launch.
“Relativity is disrupting nearly sixty years of prior aerospace technology by building a new manufacturing platform using robotics, 3D printing, and Artificial Inteligence (AI). With no fixed tooling, Relativity has enabled a massive part count and risk reduction, increased iteration speed and created an entirely new value chain,” said Ellis. “I’m confident our autonomous factory will become the future technology stack for the entire aerospace industry.”

Relativity Space integrates machine learning, software, robotics with metal additive manufacturing technology to try to build an almost entirely 3D printed rocket. It claims that it is the first company to utilize additive manufacturing and robotics to build an entire launch vehicle. Relativity’s platform vertically integrates intelligent robotics and 3D autonomous manufacturing technology to build Terran 1, which has 100 times lower part count than traditional rockets and a radically much simpler supply chain. The aerospace startup hopes to launch the world’s first entirely 3D printed rocket into orbit and enter commercial service in 2021.

The new headquarters in Long Beach (Image: Relativity Space)

The autonomous factory will have high ceilings, at 36 feet, that will enable the company to print taller structures, and the 120,000 sq. ft. space will have a 300 person capacity, that’s a pretty big move, considering they currently employ 150 people across their Los Angeles office space and production facilities, their factory building at the NASA Stennis Space Center in Mississipi, and at the Launch Complex 16 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The new headquarters facility will not only provide a new blank slate to support innovation and creation, but it is also located in the heart of Southern California’s next-generation aerospace community. With more than 35 aerospace companies in the area, the place is keeping up with a long-standing tradition as an aerospace hub, with space launch-service providers, satellite makers, and even drone developers coexisting.

“Long Beach has an extensive history as a leader in aerospace and aviation, and now we are at the forefront of the space economy,” indicated California Senator Lena Gonzalez. “We are excited to welcome Relativity to our ever-growing community of innovative tech companies.”

The new site will serve as headquarters and manufacturing facility for Relativity Space (Image: Relativity Space)

While 70th District Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell said: “I am proud to welcome Relativity Space to our community and wish them success as they go higher, further and faster to the stars. The aerospace industry is undergoing an economic resurgence in Long Beach, providing the prospects of good-paying jobs and further opening up the bounds of space for research.”

The Stage 2 Iron Bird, which will be the first additively manufactured tank to feed propellants to a rocket engine (Image: Relativity Space)

Relativity has already begun migrating staff to its new headquarters and is transitioning its patented additive manufacturing infrastructure as it builds out the first-ever mostly autonomous rocket factory. The factory will house all of the production for Terran 1, including the Aeon engine assembly, as well as integrated software, avionics, and materials development labs. The new facility enables the production of almost the entire Terran 1 rocket, including an enlarged fairing, now accommodating double the payload volume. The company claims that the combination of agile manufacturing and payload capacity makes Relativity the most competitive launch provider in its class, meeting the growing demands of an expanding satellite market.

The first stage of Terran 1 is powered by nine Aeon-1 engines, fueled by liquid oxygen (LOX) and methane; while the second stage is powered by a single restartable Aeon-1 Vacuum engine. Terran 1 will be able to carry a payload of 1250 kg to LEO, and 900 kg to a 500 km sun-synchronous orbit. The first test launch is planned for late 2020 at the Launch Complex 16 at Cape Canaveral.

The new headquarters and factory mark another milestone in Relativity’s steady execution towards its first launch. Relativity recently closed a $140 million funding round led by Bond and Tribe Capital and has already secured a launch site Right of Entry at Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 16, an exclusive-use Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) agreement for several NASA test sites, including the E4 Test Facility at the NASA Stennis Space Center, and a 20-year exclusive use lease for a 220,000 square feet factory also at the NASA Stennis Space Center.

This type of initiative broadens the range of opportunities and continues to build the fundamental basis of the future of aerospace exploration. Rockets, like Terran 1, could move forth more science, better technology, and advance research significantly. In 2019, we saw many payloads delivered to the International Space Station (ISS), all of them filled with scientific experiments, medical research and much more, and all of them aimed at improving human life on Earth and in space. With more payload, launch, and delivery options satellites, exploration and space stations could become much less expensive. Cost reduction through competition could make space a much more accessible place. Relativity Space is breaking ground with the technology, allowing its engineers to create what they can imagine, and with this new rocket facility, the startup could become a leading force in the industry.

3D printed rocket by Relativity Space (Image: Relativity Space)

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Improvements to the BioFabrication Facility on the ISS Thanks to Lithoz

Scientific discoveries and research missions beyond Earth’s surface are quickly moving forward. Advancements in the fields of research, space medicine, life, and physical sciences, are taking advantage of the effects of microgravity to find solutions to some big problems here on Earth. Researchers in 3D printing and bioprinting have taken advantage of space facilities that are dedicated to conducting multiple experiments in orbit, such as investigating microgravity’s effects on the growth of three-dimensional, human-like tissues, creating high-quality protein crystals that will help scientists develop more effective drugs, and even growing meat with 3D printing technology.

The BioFabrication Facility (BFF) by Techshot and nScrypt (Credit: Techshot)

On November 2, 2019, a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket successfully launched a Cygnus cargo spacecraft on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The payload aboard the Cygnus included supplies for the 3D BioFabrication Facility (BFF), like human cells, bioinks, as well as new 3D printed ceramic fluid manifolds that replaced the previously used that were printed out of polymers. According to Lithoz – the company behind the 3D printed ceramic fluid manifolds – they are enabling advancements in bioprinting at the ISS.

The additive manufactured ceramics have been in service since November 2019 and Lithoz claims they have proven to provide better biocompatibility than printed polymers, resulting in larger viable structures.

Lithoz, a company specializing in the development and production of materials and AM systems for 3D printing of bone replacements and high-performance ceramics, printed the ceramic manifolds using lithography-based ceramic manufacturing (LCM) on a high-resolution CeraFab printer in collaboration with Techshot, one of the companies behind the development of the BFF. Moreover, the ceramic fluid manifolds are used inside bioreactors to provide nutrients to living materials in space by the BFF.

Testing of the ceramic 3D printed manifolds is focusing on biocompatibility, precision, durability, and overall fluid flow properties; and the latest round of microgravity bioprinting in December yielded larger biological constructs than the first BFF attempts in July.

NASA engineer Christina Koch works with the BioFabrication Facility in orbit (Credit: NASA)

Techshot and Lithoz engineers and scientists worked together to optimize the design and the manufacturing processes required to make it. Techshot Senior Scientist Carlos Chang reported that “it’s been an absolute pleasure working with Lithoz.”

While Lithoz Vice President Shawn Allan suggested that “their expertise in ceramic processing really made these parts happen. The success of ceramic additive manufacturing depends on working together with design, materials, and printing. Design for ceramic additive manufacturing principles was used along with print parameter control to achieve Techshot’s complex fluid-handling design with the confidence needed to use the components on ISS.”

Headquartered in Vienna, Austria, and founded in 2011, Lithoz offers applications and material development to its customers in cooperation with renowned research institutes all over the world, benefiting from a variety of materials ranging from alumina, zirconia, silicon nitride, silica-based for casting-core applications through medical-grade bioceramics.

This work, in particular, highlighted an ideal use case for ceramic additive manufacturing to enable the production of a special compact device that could not be produced without additive manufacturing while enabling a level of bio-compatibility and strength not achievable with printable polymers. Lithoz reported that Techshot engineers were able to interface the larger bio-structures with the Lithoz-printed ceramic manifolds and that the next steps will focus on optimized integration of these components and longer culturing of the printed biological materials. While conditioned human tissues from this mission are expected to return to Earth in early 2020 for evaluation.

Back in July 2019, Gene Boland, chief scientist at Techshot, and Ken Church, chief executive officer at nScrypt, discussed the BFF at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Port Canaveral, Florida, how they planned to use the BFF in orbit to print cells (extracellular matrices), grow them and have them mature enough so that when they return to Earth researchers can encounter a close to full cardiac strength. Church described how a tissue of this size has never been grown here on Earth, let alone in microgravity. The 3D BFF is the first-ever 3D printer capable of manufacturing human tissue in the microgravity condition of space. Utilizing adult human cells (such as pluripotent or stem cells), the BFF can create viable tissue in space through a technology that enables it to precisely place and build ultra-fine layers of bioink – layers that may be several times smaller than the width of a human hair – involving the smallest print nozzles in existence.

Flight engineer Andrew Morgan works with the BioFabrication Facility (Credit: NASA)

Experts suggest that bioprinting without gravity eliminates the risk of collapse, enabling organs to grow without the need for scaffolds, offering a great alternative to some of the biggest medical challenges, like supplying bioprinted organs, providing a solution to the shortage of organs.

With NASA becoming more committed to stimulating the economy in low-Earth orbit (LEO), as well as opening up the ISS research lab to scientific investigations and experiments, we can expect to learn more about some of the most interesting discoveries that could take place 220 miles above Earth. There are already quite a few bioprinting experiments taking place on the ISS, including Allevi and Made In Space’s existing Additive Manufacturing Facility on the ISS, the ZeroG bio-extruder which allow scientists on the Allevi platform to simultaneously run experiments both on the ground and in space to observe biological differences that occur with and without gravity, and CELLINK‘s collaboration with Made In Space to identify 3D bioprinting development opportunities for the ISS as well as for future off-world platforms. All of these approaches are expected to have an impact on the future of medicine on Earth.

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