Nov.21, 2014

RedEye, a Stratasys Company and leading provider of 3D printing services, has partnered with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to 3D print 30 antenna array supports for the FORMOSAT-7 Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC-2) satellite mission.

A computer-generated image of the FORMOSAT-7/COSMIC-2, scheduled to launch in 2016. Image credit: NSPO, NOAA, NASA/JPL, UCAR, SSTL

The COSMIC-1 was put into orbit in outer space back in 2006. The purpose of the instrument was to collect ionospheric and atmospheric data of temperature, moisture, and pressure globally, including hard-to-sample areas such as above oceans and polar regions. Due to COSMIC-1's success, U.S. agencies have been working on a follow-up project called FORMOSAT-7/COSMIC-2 that will launch six satellites into orbit in late 2016 and another six in 2018.

The COSMIC-2 mission marks the first time 3D printed parts will function externally in outer space. The antenna arrays will capture atmospheric and ionospheric data to help improve weather prediction models and advance meteorological research on Earth.

A standard antenna array support design is traditionally machined out of astroquartz, an advanced composite material certified for outer space. Building custom antenna arrays out of astroquartz is time consuming and expensive because of overall manufacturing process costs (vacuum forming over a custom mold) and lack of adjustability (copper sheets are permanently glued between layers of astroquartz).

In order to keep the project on time and on budget, JPL needed an alternative method. They turned to RedEye to produce 3D printed parts that could handle the complex array designs and also be strong enough to withstand the demands of outer space.

RedEye built the custom-designed parts using Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and durable ULTEM 9085 material, a thermoplastic that has similar strength to metals like aluminum but weighs much less.

"Using FDM for a project like this has never been done before and it demonstrates how 3D printing is revolutionizing the manufacturing industry," said Jim Bartel, vice president and general manager at RedEye. "If this technology can be validated for use in the harsh environment of outer space, its capabilities are eemingly endless for projects here on Earth."

While ULTEM 9085 has been well-vetted in the aerospace industry and is flammability rated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), it has not previously been used or tested for an exterior application in space. Therefore, in addition to standard functional testing (i.e. antenna beam pattern, efficiency, and impedance match), FDM ULTEM 9085 and the parts had to go through further testing in order to meet NASA class B/B1 flight hardware requirements. Some of these tests included susceptibility to UV radiation, susceptibility to atomic oxygen, outgassing, thermal properties tests, vibration / acoustic loads standard to the launch rocket etc.

ULTEM 9085's properties met all required qualification tests. To protect the antenna array supports against oxygen atoms and ultraviolet radiation, a layer of NASA's S13G protective paint was applied to the parts.

From March 2012 – April 2013, RedEye produced 30 antenna array structures for form, fit and function testing. As of 2014, RedEye was able to successfully enter the JPL Approved Supplier List and delivered 30 complete antennas for final testing and integration.

"The intricate design of the arrays and the durability of ULTEM 9085 made additive manufacturing a perfect choice for this project," said Joel Smith, strategic account manager for aerospace and defense at RedEye. "Not only did it prove the strength of 3D printed parts, but using FDM to build these supports significantly reduced time and cost."

Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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