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October 10, 2023 | Tom Ballard

ORNL researchers 3D print wheel for NASA’s robotic lunar rover

The prototype wheel will not actually be used on the NASA Moon mission.

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in collaboration with NASA, are taking additive manufacturing to the final frontier by 3D printing the same kind of wheel as the design used by NASA for its robotic lunar rover, demonstrating the technology for specialized parts needed for space exploration.

The additively manufactured wheel was modeled on the existing, light-weight wheels of the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), a mobile robot NASA plans to send in 2024 to map ice and other potential resources at the south pole of the moon. The mission is intended to help determine the origin and distribution of the moon’s water and whether enough could be harvested from the moon’s surface to support people living there.

While the prototype wheel printed at ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility will not actually be used on the NASA Moon mission, it was created to meet the same design specifications as the wheels made for NASA’s VIPER. Additional testing is planned to validate the design and fabrication method before using this technology for future lunar or Mars rovers or considering it for other space applications, such as large structural components.

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