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Meteorite on board – reaching for the stars

8 min reading time
Its interior is decorated with a real meteorite and its paintwork glitters like the starry sky: the BMW NIGHT SKY is a one-off vehicle by BMW Individual. Read on to learn about its creators, including a leading astrophysicist.

28 March 2019

As the name suggests, this is a car that reaches for the stars. The BMW Individual M850i NIGHT SKY was created as a feasibility study by the experts of BMW Individual in a manual process lasting several weeks. They quilted cosmic patterns into the merino leather seats and roof lining, created starry constellations in the central console, and applied a series of mosaics – from the 4.5 billion-year-old material of a genuine meteorite.

Follow us, then, as we embark upon a journey through space and time and meet three of the makers of this unique heavenly creation.

The astrophysicistThe astrophysicist
An expert in meteorites: astrophysicist Thomas MüllerAn expert in meteorites: astrophysicist Thomas Müller
Seen here in the planetarium of Munich’s European Observatory, astrophysicist Dr Thomas Müller acted as a scientific adviser to the “BMW NIGHT SKY” project.

From asteroid to automobile – the astrophysicist

As an astrophysicist, Dr Thomas Müller has seen many celestial bodies. Even so, the 52-year-old cannot help but enthuse over one meteorite in particular. “The Muonionalusta meteorite is truly something quite special,” says the scientist, based at Munich’s Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. “It’s not only the oldest iron meteorite we have on Earth. Its value also lies in its extraordinary aesthetics, as the Widmanstätten patterns are especially clearly marked on this meteorite.”

These structures are named after an Austrian scientist, Alois von Beckh-Widmanstätten, who discovered the patterns in 1808. “What I find particularly fascinating is that Widmanstätten patterns cannot be reproduced on Earth,” explains Müller, who acted as a scientific adviser to the BMW NIGHT SKY project. “They arise when a liquid alloy of iron and nickel cools down very slowly in low-gravity conditions – in other words, by only 1 degree Celsius every thousand years.”

Parts of the meteoric material now adorn the BMW NIGHT SKY. From a 25 kg piece of meteorite, plates that were only 0.35 mm thick were cut. These extremely delicate pieces were applied as mosaics by the team at BMW Individual, for example to the decor panel of the central console, the transmission selection lever, and the start/stop button. “Never before have I seen meteoric metal so finely cut and processed,” says Müller appreciatively. In total, 600 grams of the material were incorporated into the BMW NIGHT SKY.

Meteorite, meteoroid, or meteor? A short astronomical glossary

  • Asteroid: A small planet (planetoid) that moves around the sun. Asteroids may consist of fragments of what were originally larger bodies of matter. If they were ejected from the crust of a protoplanet, those asteroids will be mainly composed of rock. If, on the other hand, they come from the core, they will have a high iron content. The diameter of asteroids varies between about a meter and 1000 kilometers.

  • Meteoroid: An object that circles the sun but is smaller than an asteroid. When entering the Earth’s atmosphere, it burns up completely and becomes a so-called “shooting star”.

  • Meteor: The optical effects caused by the light of a shooting star as it burns up. The light from larger bodies is sometimes also termed a “fireball.”

  • Meteorite: An astronomical body that does not completely burn up on entry into the Earth’s atmosphere but instead reaches the Earth’s surface.

The meteorite is as old as Earth

Timeline illustration for the Muonionalusta meteoriteTimeline illustration for the Muonionalusta meteorite
  1. 4.5 Billion years ago: Birth of the protoplanet that later gave rise to the Muonionalusta meteorite. This makes it as old as the earth and the entire solar system.

  2. 400 million years ago: In a cosmic crash, the protoplanet shattered into an enormous number of pieces, which then flew through space as either larger or smaller asteroids.

  3. 235 million years ago: The dinosaurs ruled the earth until they became extinct as a result of the impact of an asteroid measuring more than 10 kilometers in diameter.

  4. 1 million years ago: One of these fragments entered the earth’s atmosphere. Parts of it fell to the earth’s surface as the Muonionalusta meteorite.

  5. 200,000 years ago: The oldest known remains of Homo sapiens (found in Ethiopia).

  6. 10,000 years ago: End of the most recent ice age.

Only around 5% of the meteorites discovered are iron meteorites. This makes the Muonionalusta meteorite a rarity.
Dr Thomas Müller

astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute

The material from the Muonionalusta meteorite originally came from the core of a protoplanet. Just like Earth’s core, its interior consisted of molten iron and nickel. According to Müller, this makes the Muonionalusta meteorite something of a rarity: “Only around 5% of the meteorites discovered are iron meteorites.” The other meteorites largely consist of stone and are therefore stone meteorites. The Muonionalusta meteorite takes its name from the place where it was found in Swedish Lapland.

Based on the corrosion on its surface, scientists have been able to date its fall to Earth. They believe that the original body entered the atmosphere about one million years ago, shattering into pieces as it did so. Smaller fragments burnt up in the form of shooting stars. Larger chunks reached the Earth’s surface as meteorites. “Between 1906 and the present day, around 40 pieces of the Muonionalusta meteorite have been found, spread across an area of approximately 15 square kilometers,” explains Müller. Nonetheless, the astrophysicist does his best to warn off potential treasure seekers, saying, “The area lies to the north of the Arctic Circle and is subject to heavy snows in winter. And in summer you get eaten alive by mosquitoes.”

This fact does nothing to diminish Müller’s enthusiasm for the artistic Widmanstätten patterns, reproduced in the BMW NIGHT SKY: “This original material dates back to the early days of the solar system. To scientists, it reveals a great deal about the creative processes and developments in outer space. And its beauty cannot be replicated by human hands.” The BMW Individual team, however, has tried to do just that – with a little technological help involving 3D printers...

Meteorite for sale? Sadly, not in this case: the BMW Individual M850i NIGHT SKYMeteorite for sale? Sadly, not in this case: the BMW Individual M850i NIGHT SKY
An homage to the twilight hour: the BMW NIGHT SKY, a feasibility study by BMW Individual.
The 3D printing expertThe 3D printing expert
An expert in 3D printing and 3D printers: Alexander FickerlAn expert in 3D printing and 3D printers: Alexander Fickerl
Alexander Fickerl works in the BMW Group’s Additive Manufacturing Center in Munich.

Components of ethereal lightness – the 3D printing expert

In the BMW NIGHT SKY, the Widmanstätten pattern is not only found on the original meteoric material. It is also used to decorate a number of components that were created using a 3D printer.

Alexander Fickerl is responsible for technical integration at the BMW Group’s Additive Manufacturing Center in Munich. “In 2010, we began to use plastic and metal-based processes initially in small-scale production runs,” the 31-year-old explains. BMW also became the first car maker worldwide to utilize 3D-printed metal parts in serial production with an aluminum bracket for the tonneau cover in the BMW i8 Roadster. “We are now handling around 30,000 jobs per year and shipping more than 200,000 components to our clients,” explains Fickerl.

The 3D printing experts were very enthusiastic about working on the “NIGHT SKY” project. Around 15 employees were involved, from the designer who transferred the Widmanstätten pattern into a three-dimensional form to technology specialists who identified the most appropriate 3D printing process and the workers who installed the printed metal and plastic parts in the vehicle.

“The rapid transformation of ideas and visions into tangible components is what I find fascinating about the additive manufacturing process, particularly when prototyping,” says Alexander Fickerl. He even keeps a small 3D printer at home. “I most recently used it to replace the broken bracket of my bicycle light. And I gave my girlfriend a 3D-printed vase I designed myself for her birthday.”

For the 3D printing of the calipers, we used a process that is also applied in space technology.
Alexander Fickerl

responsible for technical integration at the BMW Group’s Additive Manufacturing Center in Munich

Most of the 3D-printed components for the BMW NIGHT SKY are made of plastic, such as the cover of the wing mirrors and the front side air vents. “The real challenge was in identifying the right 3D printing process because we wanted to reproduce the Widmanstätten pattern with as much detail as possible.” Alexander Fickerl and his colleagues opted for an assembly process reliant on stereolithography. With this technique, a UV laser constructs the component layer by layer within a bath of UV-sensitive liquid resin.

However, the most spectacular 3D-printed components of the BMW NIGHT SKY are the aluminum brake calipers. “Here, we were able to exploit the benefits of the additive process in ways that wouldn’t have been possible in a conventional casting process. For the production of the calipers, we even used a process that is also applied in space technology for producing rocket propulsion assemblies,” Alexander Fickerl explains. “With the aid of a bionic design – in other words, a design based on nature – we reduced the weight by 30%. Just like in the natural world, we only use material where it’s needed for functionality. As a result, the links between the various bars in the caliper now resemble the branches of trees.”

The experts had to put many hours of work into optimizing the caliper. The actual printing process then took 16 hours to complete, as a laser fused the component in an aluminum powder bed layer by layer, each layer being only 0.05 mm thick.

Are the 3D-printed components of the BMW NIGHT SKY still in the realm of science fiction? Or will aluminum calipers produced in an additive manufacturing process be ready for serial production soon? As Alexander Fickerl explains, “Just like the BMW NIGHT SKY itself, its 3D-printed components are one-off creations that give us a glimpse of the future. The brake caliper, though, is still being developed and tested. And the results so far are promising.”

The automotive painterThe automotive painter
The starry-sky-paintwork of the BMW NIGHT SKYThe starry-sky-paintwork of the BMW NIGHT SKY
At BMW’s Dingolfing plant, Johann Bogner (right) and his colleagues created the starry sky effect of the BMW NIGHT SKY.

A sparkling starry sky – the car painter’s art

Johann Bogner has already painted a number of unusual models. His works include a two-tone BMW 7 Series model for the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld and special paint jobs for customers from China and Oman. However, this commission to paint the bodywork of the BMW NIGHT SKY with a starry sky was the culmination of Johann’s 40-year career in the paint shop of BMW’s Dingolfing plant.

“We shut ourselves away in the paint shop during the summer closedown of August 2018 so we wouldn’t hold up production,” the 55-year-old explains. “The weather outside was great. But to me, painting the car seemed more appealing.”

On the first day, Johann Bogner and his team painted the bodywork monochrome black completely by hand. “The next day, I applied San Marino blue in a smooth transition from the bottom up,” the painter says. “These colors harmonize very nicely – just like in a real-life night sky.”

I was fascinated by the idea of transferring the sparkle of the stars into the paintwork.
Johann Bogner

automotive painter at BMW’s Dingolfing plant

In the weeks preceding his work on the special commission, Johann Bogner spent many nights outside his house in Lower Bavaria craning his head toward the sky. “I was fascinated by the idea of transferring the sparkling of the stars into the paintwork,” he explains. “We did this by adding light-reflective glitter and bronze pigments to a transparent varnish.” The particles were larger than those found in conventional metal paintwork. This meant that Johann Bogner had to apply three layers of the transparent varnish to achieve a smooth surface. He had to spend almost four hours on the effect and finish.

To present the completed one-of-a-kind vehicle, Johann Bogner traveled to the BMW Individual production site in Munich. “When the headlights came on and the stars shone out of the paintwork with its shimmering transition of colors, it was a real highlight. Everyone was absolutely thrilled.”

Options for individuality

The BMW NIGHT SKY is not for sale to the public. It is truly one of a kind, partly because original material from meteorites has not been approved for use in cars. As Mathias Babbel – head of the Exclusive Customer Advisory division at BMW Individual – explains, the production team regularly makes unusual client requests a reality: “Provided they comply with the applicable safety specifications, standard brand characteristics, legal regulations, and any technically necessary product features; we can implement custom design elements. From finely detailed inlays to unusual materials like silk, anything is possible”.

Photos: BMW AG, portrait photos (2): Dirk Bruniecki



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