Feb 3, 2016 | By Alec

Over the past few years, NASA has been building up a reputation as 3D printing pioneers. Countless greenlighted projects for satellites and the upcoming mission to Mars have included metal 3D printing in one way or another, often with the help of external partners. Just two weeks ago, they successfully tested a 3D printed hypersonic engine combustor. But it looks like metal isn’t the only material on their radar, as their forthcoming Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2, expected to launch in 2018), actually features a unique 3D printed part made of polyetherketoneketone (PEKK), a material that has never gone into space before.

This new satellite is a follow up to NASA’s successful ICESat mission, and will be used to measure changes in ice-sheet elevations in Greenland and the Antarctic, sea-ice thicknesses, and global vegetation, and will use a completely new flying technique to do so. It is currently being built at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. However, we are obviously far more interested in this PEKK component. It’s a bit of an unusual thermoplastic from the polyaryletherketone (PAEK family), featuring semi-crystalline properties and exhibiting high heat resistance, chemical resistance and the ability to withstand high mechanical loads. Perfect, in short, for satellites. “This is a first for this material,” said Craig Auletti, lead production engineer on the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS), the only device carried by the satellite.

The 3D printed part in question is only the bracket supporting the instrument’s fiber-optic cables, but that makes it no less special. The engineers working on this project say they chose the material for its properties, but especially for another quality: it’s electrostatically dissipative, meaning it reduces the build-up of static electricity and is therefore able to protect electrostatically sensitive devices. But PEKK also comes with a few other advantages that should put in more prominently on the 3D printing radar. PEKK produces very little outgassing (the side effect of plastic production, known as the ‘new car smell’). When used in a vacuum or in heated environments, those gasses and their contaminants can be harmful to optical devices and thermal radiators, so a regular plastic bracket would also be harmful to the satellite’s instruments.

The 3D printed part -- a black bracket holding the instrument's fiber-optic cables -- is visible in the back of the ATLAS instrument. (Images credit: NASA)

Though NASA is regularly using metal 3D printing during testing, Oren Sheinman, the ATLAS mechanical systems engineer, revealed that this is actually just the second space-bound instrument to carry a 3D printed part. The other part was 3D printed on an Ultem 9085 3D printer at the International Space Station as part of NASA’s SPHERES program. But the technology’s advantages means they will be using it more frequently for actually space-bound parts. “Had we manufactured this part classically, it would have taken six to eight weeks. We got it in two days,” Sheinman said, adding that costs were decreased to about a fourth with the help of 3D printing.

All this being said, the PEKK part is actually just a small feature on what should be a very groundbreaking mission. ATLAS Instrument Scientist Tony Martino further revealed that the ATLAS itself is a revolutionary instrument, and will be their first space-borne photon-counting laser altimeter. If successful, it will change the way surface elevations are measured completely. The satellite’s predecessor, which completed its run in 2009, used just a single laser, but the ICESat-2 will feature a green-light laser split into six beams, firing continuously at a rapid 10,000 pulses per second toward Earth.

Through photon counting, this will enable the satellite to precisely record the time-of-flight of individual photons and create dense cross-track samples that will help them determine a surface’s slope. “This is one of the new capabilities,” Martino said. “We’re getting cross track slope every time the satellite passes over.” The mission will last two years, and the satellite is almost completely finished. “All functional parts are there and our first comprehensive testing starts in February. We’re on track,” Martino says.

 

 

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