Jul 5, 2016 | By Alec

It’s a big day in the aerospace world. In the very early hours of this morning, NASA’s Juno spacecraft entered Jupiter’s orbit during a tense 35 minute Jupiter Orbital Insertion (JOI), which left scientists everywhere biting their nails. But NASA received several radio tones throughout the night that indicated successes, and eventually Juno signaled that it had entered orbit – one second off from predictions. But this is also a huge event for the 3D printing world, as Juno is the first ever spacecraft to fly 3D printed parts – a dozen or so titanium waveguide brackets made by Lockheed Martin.

But there’s more than one reason why this mission is so important. The craft itself is named after the wife of Roman god Jupiter (the planet’s moons are named after Jupiter’s mistresses). In Roman mythology, she had the power to see through clouds, and that is exactly what Juno will be doing now: extensively documenting the planet below Jupiter’s dense clouds, providing researchers with more information about the biggest planet in our solar system – about 300 times bigger than earth.

To access that data, Juno will take the highest resolution images of Jupiter in history, and will become the first spacecraft to orbit an outer planet from pole to pole. In particular, it will be studying Jupiter’s atmosphere, the intense radiation belts and the planet’s magnetic fields (20,000 times larger than Earth’s). All in all, Juno will be orbiting Jupiter 37 times. “During the almost one-and-a-half-year science phase of the mission, the spacecraft will execute a close flyby above the planet’s cloud tops every 14 days,” NASA revealed. Upon their completion, Juno will be shot below the clouds of Northern Jupiter, where it will burn up in February 2018 – as it is solar powered and cannot operate within the planet’s atmosphere.

So why do all this? Because the planet could hold valuable clues about how our solar system was formed. Jupiter itself is mostly composed of hydrogen and helium (which forms the stripy surface), and it is believed to be the first planet formed in our solar system. The planet has sometimes been described as a failed star or a mini star, as its composition is similar to that of the sun – it’s just 80 times smaller. “The shape and strength of magnetic fields give us clues about the process that gives rise to them in the center of a planet," says Jens Erler, an astronomer at the Argelander Institute for Astronomy. It will also provide us with a better understanding of other planets, like Saturn and more distant exoplanets.

What’s more, Jupiter also features one very noticeable and mysterious feature that will be studied too: the Great Red Spot. Twice the width of Earth, it’s a massive swirling storm that has been raging with 640 kilometer p/h winds for at least a century and a half. Most importantly, we have no idea what causes it yet. “Jupiter's got a really interesting system,” astronomer and Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt explained. “It's a mini-star, it's got Europa - it's got all this action going on with its moons - so it's an interesting place in the solar system.”

NASA's Juno spacecraft awaits launch at Cape Canaveral.

A lot of time and effort went into this $1.1 billion mission, and Juno is groundbreaking for several reasons. Juno has been travelling through space since August 5 2011, having travelled 445 million miles to reach Jupiter – becoming the farthest solar-powered object ever. During the orbital insertion procedure, Juno became the fastest man-made object in the solar system as well, travelling a mind-boggling 160,000 miles an hour. Over the coming missions, the spacecraft will be flying as close as 2,600 miles to Jupiter’s cloud tops.

Of course such a mission also requires a very special contraption. In fact, Jupiter is so far away it takes 45 minutes for commands and responses to be sent to and from the spacecraft and earth. To handle that, Juno is very autonomous, and was capable of conducting the insertion all on its own. “It’s quite an undertaking to develop something that you can’t talk to,” Juno development program manager Tim Gasparrini recalled. Juno is also the first interplanetary spacecraft to incorporate 3D printed materials. Specifically, Lockheed Martin created a dozen or so titanium brackets that hold the electronics in place. These were cheaper and faster to make than conventional brackets. In the near future, Lockheed Martin will be using the same approach for satellite fuel tanks.

But perhaps even more impressive is the fact that the Juno was designed to run on solar power – which is unusual for spacecraft. They usually rely on Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs), “basically, an atomic battery,” says Erler. But these require plutonium and come with considerable risk. To provide adequate power, Juno features three solar arrays that protrude from its body and are 9 meters long. When combined, they have a solar area of 60 square meters.

Furthermore, the Juno has been designed to operate in the heart of Jupiter’s radiation belts. To do so, it features a special radiation vault made from titanium which protects all the sensitive instruments and electronics. “Jupiter's environment is highly radioactive,” Erler says. “You have to invent special electronics hardened against the radiation, which is very interesting, regarding applications here on Earth.” All in all, the Juno is a highly advanced spacecraft that could make the next year and half very interesting for space fans everywhere. And considering the pace at which aerospace 3D printing is developing, Juno’s successor will doubtlessly feature more than a dozen 3D printed components.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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