Advanced Materials Testing Laboratory Test and validate space technology

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Understanding your challenges

Space is one of the most extreme and harsh environments imaginable. Materials developed to compete in the upstream space market need to prove that they will withstand this environment for long periods of time with little or no intervention.

For businesses looking to validate materials for use in space missions, the Science and Technology Facilities Council in partnership with the European Space Agency, offers expertise and test services in our advanced materials testing laboratory at Harwell Campus. The laboratory is part of a larger European Network.

Providing a solution

Using cutting edge equipment, our scientists can investigate a wide range of material properties and characteristics in order to provide recommendations on how they can best be applied or improved for use in a fully-fledged space mission.

Advanced manufacturing techniques for future space missions

The laboratory tests samples of materials used for space projects and supports a wide range of specialist topics including additive manufacturing, joining technologies and assessment of new materials. The laboratory also offers services in:

  • Powder characterisation
  • Metrology
  • Microstructural characterisation and heat treatment
  • Mechanical testing and failure analysis
  • Non-destructive inspections

Materials Characterisation

  • Optical Microscopes with extensive imaging capability
  • Scanning Electron Microscope with a range of detectors
  • Tensile Testing with combinations of grips and gauges
  • Vickers Hardness Testing for both macro and micro measurements
  • X-Ray Powder Diffraction for phase determination
  • Conductive Anodic Filament system coupled with an environmental chamber
  • Thermal conductivity of materials, liquids and powders

Materials Preparation

  • Materials Preparation including, cutting, mounting, polishing, and etching
  • Sputter coating and access to advance deposition tools
  • Heat treatments and access to high temperature and vacuum ovens
Borel tubular furnace for heating up to 1500 ⁰C in controlled environments

Powder Characterisation

  • Particle laser diffraction system for powder size measurements
  • Static and Dynamic Rheometer for powder flow measurements
  • Electrostatic charge measurement of a flowing powder on a surface

Case Studies

Comparing Titanium powders

Powders characterised in the SEM and laser particle diffractometer

Due to its high tensile strength, high resistance and ability to withstand high temperatures without creeping, titanium alloys are often used in spacecraft. Using our SEM and laser particle diffractometer, we found significant differences between powders for additive manufacturing acquired from different manufacturers.

Simulating moon dust

3D printing of a model building block for a lunar base outer shell. Image credit: DLR-Cologne. ​

Combining the advanced material testing laboratory's capabilities of materials testing with access to STFC's neutron and muon source, scientists have been able to study lunar soil analogues to investigate their potential use for radiation shielding of future lunar habitats.

Using the fast neutrons allowed the investigation the radiation shielding efficiency of different lunar regolith simulants, sintered through different processes. Samples include a simulant developed by NASA composed of basaltic ash and a high glass content, and another developed in Japan from basalts from Mount Fuji, both representing the chemical composition, mineralogy and particle size distribution of regolith on the Moon.

This work is important since limited data is published on the attenuation of neutron particles for 3D printed solar sintered regolith. By using the fast neutron instrument, we have been able to characterise the radiation shielding properties of the solid sintered blocks and assess the necessary wall thickness required to protect the crew on a lunar base" - Andrew Barnes, European Space Agency

Space is hard: tough testing for 3D printed metal parts

Temperature resistant printed component

3D-printed metal parts produced through a Europe-wide collaboration of high-performance industrial sectors have undergone extensive testing for space use - tested to destruction in many cases. The advanced materials testing laboratory took delivery of the sample parts, produced as an output of the AMAZE programme, harnessing metal 3D printing to produce lighter, cheaper, better products.

Space is an extremely challenging environment, so our lab had to perform a wide range of testing. The parts were pulled to failure and fatigue tested, where they were repeatedly subjected to heavy loads until breaking. They also underwent cryogenic and high-temperature testing to establish their resistance to the wide temperature fluctuations encountered in orbit: do they shrink, swell or hold their shape?" - Maximilian Sprengel

Additive Manufacturing powder testing

Testing raw materials is crucial for ensuring that parts produced for space can withstand harsh conditions. In order to gain more knowledge and confidence in the use of materials, the advanced materials testing laboratory is working closely with a team at STFC to test metal additively manufactured parts. Using the metal 3D printer capabilites at STFC's Daresbury Laboratory, the team is undertaking a full cycle of raw material procurement, testing, sample manufacturing, post-processing and comprehensive sample testing.

Raw material procurement is an important factor in the end-to-end additive manufacturing process as the quality of the fresh and reused metal powder is known to have a significant influence on the final part properties.

Microstructure characterisation of a friction stir weld

Microstructure characterisation of a friction stir welded hemi-cylinder structure using Ti-6Al4V (Titanium) castings

In this Materials Characterisation investigation, the advanced materials testing laboratory looked at the friction stir weld region of a cast cylinder and hemisphere shell, joined by a single curved track. The weld was found to be stable with good mechanical properties, no porosity and few defects in the microstructure. However, periodic bands of tungsten contamination were detected in the stir zone, probably as a result of tool wear.


Reach for the stars – helping businesses launch into (and out of) space

With the launch of NASA’s SpaceX mission, interest in the aerospace sector and commercial space travel has reignited. But developing the materials for space flight remains a challenge that requires the highest levels of research and innovation. After all, space is one of the most extreme and harsh environments imaginable, and materials developed for space missions may have to withstand these conditions for long periods with little or no intervention. But for many space sector businesses (particularly recently-launched start-ups) investing in top-class research facilities and expertise is simply not an option. STFC offers a solution by giving businesses affordable access to its world-leading facilities and expertise. Combined, these offer everything a business could need to develop their ideas into a tested, verified and ready-to-launch product.

The above capabilities complement the advanced materials testing laboratory, where businesses can obtain in-depth, bespoke analyses of their test materials. The facility’s cutting-edge equipment allows a wide range of properties to be investigated, including powder characterisation, mechanical testing and failure analysis, microstructural characterisation and heat treatment, and non-destructive residual stress measurement. Besides equipment, the laboratory provides expert advice, including recommendations on how best to apply or improve materials for a fully-fledged space mission.

5 things to consider before 3D printing

3D printing (or additive manufacturing) is one of the most rapidly growing trends in the space sector. Particularly for unique, one-off space missions, manufacturing bespoke components on a small scale can rapidly delay the development process, whilst significantly increasing costs. 3D printing allows specific component parts to be commissioned on-demand and rapidly synthesised. STFC's additive manufacturing facility at Sci-Tech Daresbury enables swift prototyping of complex designs on a project-by-project basis, facilitating cutting-edge engineering research and development at an affordable price.

STFC experts advise businesses on how 3D printing could streamline manufacturing processes to reduce costs and break down barriers to product development. The team at Daresbury has been working alongside the advanced materials testing laboratory.

STFC's Andrew Conley provides 5 things to consider...

Complementary to the advanced materials testing laboratory is ESA's Materials & Electrical Components Laboratory which guarantees an optimal choice of electrical components, materials and processes for missions and external projects, considering the unique environmental challenges involved in building for space, additionally investigating failures to ensure similar issues do not occur on future missions.

The Advanced Materials Testing Laboratory is managed by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, in partnership with the European Space Agency.


STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Harwell Campus, OX11 0QX


Created with images by NASA - "untitled image" • rkarkowski - "moon full moon sky"