KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A wheel made in East Tennessee marks a step forward in the potential of 3D printing for space exploration.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory collaborated with NASA to 3D print a lunar rover wheel. The wheel was modeled on the wheels of the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER. NASA plans to send this mobile robot to map ice and other potential resources on the moon’s south pole in 2024.

While the wheel made at DOE’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at ORNL will be used on the NASA Moon mission, the project shows the potential of “additive manufacturing for creating highly specialized parts needed for space exploration” according to ORNL. The wheel prototype was able to incorporate more design features and complexity into a single piece, while taking less time and manpower to make.

“This dramatically increases the production rate with the same amount of laser power,” said Peter Wang, who leads MDF development of new laser powder bed fusion systems. “We’re only scratching the surface of what the system can do. I really think this is going to be the future of laser powder bed printing, especially at large scale and in mass production.”

“The project with NASA really propelled the technology forward,” said Brian Gibson, the researcher who led the rover wheel project for ORNL, calling it a milestone. “It was great to connect a capability with a developing need, and the team was excited to be making a prototype component with space exploration applications.”

NASA said they plan to test the printed wheel’s performance to compare it with traditionally manufactured wheels that will be used on the moon next year. Additional testing is planned to validate the design and fabrication method before using this technology for future lunar or Mars rovers and more.

“A lot of these wheel features were put in just to highlight what you can do with additive manufacturing,” said Richard Hagen, a mechanical design engineer for NASA and additive manufacturing lab manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “It lets you easily implement design features that are hard to implement with traditional tooling or even a traditionally machined part.”

The technology could also be used to build parts in space for repairs. Hagen explained that the research stations planned to be placed on the moon as part of NASA’s Artemis program will need off-planet manufacturing capability.

“Being able to build parts in space for repairs will be important because you just can’t take enough spares,” he said. “Powder, pellets, or filament for printing are a lot easier to pack and would allow for more flexibility.”

“Additive manufacturing offers the flexibility that if you have the feedstock, you could make any replacement part you need, whether in space or on Earth,” Gibson said.

ORNL added that 3D printers could eventually use material from the moon or Mars.