When NASA’s Cygnus-15 vehicle rocketed skyward on Feb. 20, bound for the International Space Station (ISS), its 8,000 pounds of cargo included a 3D printed electronics experiment by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University students.
The Eagles are supporting a larger effort by L3Harris Technologies that will help advance the use of 3D printing or “additive manufacturing” for space applications.
“Our students are contributing to a much broader initiative by L3Harris, thanks to Embry-Riddle’s partnership with this leading aerospace company,” explained faculty mentor Dr. Eduardo Rojas-Nastrucci, assistant professor, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for the students to learn from a real-world client as they prepare for their future careers in this field.”
3D Printing for Space Applications
The project, conducted at Embry-Riddle’s Research Park, will help determine how 3D printed communication devices perform in low Earth orbit (LEO), said Rojas-Nastrucci, director of the Wireless Devices and Electromagnetics (WiDE) Laboratory in Embry-Riddle’s MicaPlex facility.
“If we want to explore the moon, Mars and beyond, we will need to be able to fabricate devices in space,” Rojas noted. “Let’s say there is a meteoroid impact on a spacecraft and there is no practical way to get a new instrument there quickly to fix the damage,” he added. “With 3D printing, we can have a system on the spacecraft to make devices on an ad hoc basis. So, if one radio was broken, you could have the raw materials on hand and a 3D printer and you could make a replacement.”
If we want to explore the moon, Mars and beyond, we will need to be able to fabricate devices in space … With 3D printing, we can have a system on the spacecraft to make devices on an ad hoc basis.
But first, researchers need to know whether 3D printed devices can withstand the extreme conditions of outer space.
So, for six months, Rojas and his hard-working team of student researchers will send signals from a 3D printed antenna on the ISS to new satellite ground stations at the Micaplex. The ground stations consist of two rotating positioners that will simultaneously track signals and feed data into a computer system. The primary goal is to assess the antenna’s performance over time. Sensor readings will help the team determine whether ionizing radiation degrades the antenna’s performance, for example.
All of these activities will support the characterization of a broader set of additively manufactured materials prepared by the L3Harris Technologies research team, led by Senior Scientist Dr. Arthur Paolella.
Eagles Advancing Innovation
The researchers will study the effects on the 3D-printed material after exposing the antenna and the shield to UV radiation, ionizing radiation and atomic oxygen for six months, said Carlos Mejias, a Ph.D. student who worked on the radiation shielding and sensing components to monitor the radiation levels. “This is a great opportunity for us because we can study the degradation of 3D printed materials caused by different phenomena that only happen in outer space,” said Mejias, who already has a full-time position with Akoustis Technologies, thanks to an Embry-Riddle internship.
Noemí Miguélez Gómez, a Ph.D. candidate at Embry-Riddle, focused on the design, manufacturing and testing of electronics for the project. “We will analyze the effects of the exposure of our materials and components to the extreme environment of space,” she confirmed. “We took measurements before the launch. We will capture more during the experiment, and again after everything is brought back to the lab for evaluation. That way, we can see the effects of long-term and short-term space environment exposures on these components.”
At the start of the project, John Sahr, a senior undergraduate studying Aerospace Engineering, helped characterize the outer space environment. He also set up and calibrated the ground station equipment being used to receive signals. “Getting that equipment up and running and battle-tested will be a big event for the WiDE lab,” Sahr said.
Although other researchers have previously considered similar components in their designs and experimented with 3D printed devices for small satellite missions, to the best of the knowledge of the participants, the Embry-Riddle project marks the first time anyone has completely exposed such equipment to the low Earth orbit environment, with just a 3D printed radiation shielding in place, Mejias and Miguélez Gómez noted. “We hope to get some results that are completely novel and can be applied to future research and space missions,” Miguélez Gómez said.
Dr. Rojas-Nastrucci is a 2019 recipient of the National Science Foundation CAREER Award. His most recent work, co-authored with his students Miguélez Gómez and Mejias, was published by IEEE on March 19, 2021.