NASA is studying a technology known as "3D-Printable spacecraft", which is one of 30 potentially revolutionary technologies NASA is working on. The idea is to collect science data by embedded electronic devices.
Printable electronics is a relatively new field in which common inkjet printers are used in conjunction with conductive electronic or optical inks to mass-produce extremely thin, flexible and cheap electronic circuits, transistors and photovoltaic cells onto a material.
In the near future, maybe 10 years from now, the robot spacecraft will be 3D printed sheets embedded with all the sensors for gathering scientific information, data processing, data downlink and a communications system.
"The crazy part about it is there's no structure. The entire spacecraft is basically a sheet a paper," said lead researcher Kendra Short, with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif..
Scientists will be able to use 3D printing to "copy" a large number of all types of robot spacecraft and use them to perform a variety of space exploration missions and collect information from multiple targets at the same time.
"Imagine a Mars or an Enceladus (a moon of Saturn) surface network where you bring a carrier spacecraft, or an entry vehicle or something, you open it up and these little pieces of paper basically flutter down to the surface of the planet and do chemical composition measurements, atmospheric measurements -- pressure, density, temperate -- things like that," Short said.
It is worth mentioning that a traditional detectors landed on planet such as Mars can handle only a certain range activities in complex Mars surface environment. Not to mention how expensive it is to design and build a variety of detectors for different planetary surface environment, such as the exploration of Saturn and Jupiter's atmosphere.
"But imagine these things just sprinkled all around, or even descending through the atmosphere of Saturn or Jupiter, and spreading over thousands of miles, transmitting data back to a host spacecraft or something. You'd get a lot of measurements in a lot of different places that you wouldn't otherwise be able to get to," Short said.
In future, scientists can bring the 3D printer to the site and upload the spacecraft design drawings with desired function to 3D printer and print out all the necessary science probes.
"We're looking for something that leaps beyond, that is one or two orders of magnitude higher performance or lower cost or something that makes it less risky," said Jay Falker, manager of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program.
"If we have one breakthrough, it'll all be worthwhile," he said.
NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts Conference, held this week in Pasadena, California, announced the idea of this technology.
photo credit: DNews/JPL/Getty
Posted in 3D Printing Technology
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