May 23, 2017 | By Julia

The European Space Agency (ESA) has launched a new initiative 3D printing CubeSat bodies in hard, electrically conductive plastic. With the first test run officially underway, ESA aims to get these 3D printed miniature satellites ready for future use, complete with internal electrical lines. Instruments, circuit boards, and solar panels would simply need to be slotted in.

Focusing specifically on 3D printing polyether ether ketone (or PEEK), ESA reps are looking towards a bright future. “PEEK is a thermoplastic with very good intrinsic properties in terms of strength, stability and temperature resistance, with a melting point up around 370ºC. PEEK is so robust that it can do comparable jobs to some metal parts,” explains ESA Space Materials and Technology Specialist Ugo Lafont.

ESA has begun a new partnership with Portuguese polymer engineering firm PIEP for this project. Together, the two partners have created a printable PEEK that’s electrically conductive by adding specific nano-fillers to the material.

While that innovation may be a first, Lafont says plastic has always been a particularly conducive material for bespoke manufacturing. “This kind of customizing has taken place for as long as the plastic industry has existed,” Lafont notes. “Plastic has been mixed with different materials to tailor their properties as desired, to make them more resistant for instance, or shinier. In this instance, this ‘doped’ PEEK filament can now be used as a standard feedstock in our 3D printing process.”

For an initial demonstration, Lafont and Stefan Siarov from the Delft University of Technology 3D printed bodies for CubeSats: cheap nanosatellites based on industrial, stackable electronic boards housed in standardized 10 cm boxed units. While CubeSats were first developed as educational tools, recent years have seen the miniature boxed satellites become increasingly used actively in orbit.

Not only would Lafont and Siarov’s 3D printed PEEK CubeSats be capable of flying in space, notes Siarov, but the bodies would also be highly functional. These specialized CubeSats incorporate electrically conductive lines instead of the wire harness normally used for connecting up different CubeSat subsystems, thus saving time, space, and energy.

As Lafont is quick to point out, CubeSats are only the beginning in terms of what’s possible with 3D printed PEEK. Next steps include a new collaboration between ESA’s Directorate of Human Spaceflight & Robotic Exploration and the Materials’ Physics & Chemistry team to develop a space-optimized PEEK printer. Intended for initial testing on zero-gravity aircraft flights, the 3D printer would eventually serve astronauts on the International Space Station.

The vision would enable a new maintenance strategy altogether, claims Lafont. “Space Station crews end up needing all kinds of items, all of which currently require transport from Earth: everything from screws and water valves to hermetic containers and water valves. All of these could be 3D printed instead – even toothbrushes – since PEEK is biocompatible,” says Lafont.

“3D printing such items in orbit would be cheaper, and would change the equation of recyclability. Because these plastic items can later be recycled, we reduce the scarcity of materials in space and start to make human missions to space more self-sustaining.”

A sample 3D printed PEEK part

The first PEEK-printed structural part is due to fly on the Meteosat Third Generation series of weather satellites by the end of the decade.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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