Reach for the Stars: Students Working with NASA to Reduce the Weight of 3D Printed Objects Sent to Space

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During college, I was a staff photographer and the chief copy editor for our school newspaper. I also landed two great summer internships – one in the marketing department of a symphony, and one as a copy editor for a local newspaper. During all of these experiences, I made good contacts and learned a lot of useful information that helped me on my eventual career path. That’s what college is for – in addition to learning all you can in class, taking opportunities like internships, campus activities, and projects that relate to what you eventually want to do can teach you valuable skills and give you real world experience. Eleven students from North Dakota State University (NDSU) will certainly have a cool project to put on their resumes – they are working to develop a better 3D printing technique for space, and the group’s project partner is none other than NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.

NDSU has turned to the stars before, teaming up with the University of North Dakota to work on the OpenOrbiter Project to create a low-cost cube satellite that would launch a 3D printing experiment to the International Space Station. The goal of the JPL project is to make 3D printed objects that will be sent to space more lightweight by reducing the level of required material for support structures, while continuing to meet important performance requirements.

[Image courtesy of NDSU]

The students participating in the project are working toward majors in Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering, and this amazing opportunity could help them on their way to lucrative, fulfilling careers.

Jeremy Straub

“The opportunity to work on an actual NASA problem is inspirational to the students. For many of the students, who grew up watching science fiction and dreaming of the stars, working with NASA seems like a once-in- a-lifetime opportunity,” said Jeremy Straub, an assistant professor in NDSU’s Computer Science department who’s coordinating the project and mentoring the students. “For some, this initial taste of space exploration may translate into a career goal.”

The student team meets once a week to video conference with the JPL team, which broke the challenge down into a series of smaller problems for the students. The students meet a second time each week without JPL, and smaller sub-groups spend time during the week working on their portions of the project.

They are developing a software algorithm which will reduce how many support structures are needed to fill a given 3D printed object. By using tree-like designs and computation of supported loads, the team can replace a typical support structure with one that has less mass, due to its reduced number of structural members. This could potentially lower the cost of space missions, as the overall mass of equipment, materials, habitats, supplies, and vehicles directly affects the cost and feasibility of these missions. If these same objects can have their weight reduced and still remain strong and robust, a space mission will cost less money, and be able to bring more supplies or scientific experiments.

NDSU Mechanical Engineering sophomore Joseph Manning, who’s also a USAF veteran, said, “It’s important because it can help make 3D printing faster, more effective and more efficient across the board – from home machines to industry.”

NASA’s JPL, no stranger to 3D printing technology, is a leader in using robotics to explore the solar system, with missions like the Voyager program and the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity Rover. So the 3D printing technology that JPL is developing with the NDSU student group could have applications for satellites and surface exploration, or even be used for manned and unmanned missions.

As the project with JPL will go beyond one school semester, the student participants range from freshmen to graduate students, in order to keep the team going. The participating students are enjoying the experience of working on the innovative project, and not just because they like outer space.

NDSU Computer Science freshman Andrew Gabler said, “I am interested in trying new things and challenging myself with hard problems.”

The student team will have the chance to test out the algorithms on the university’s 3D printers, and the corresponding team at JPL will test the results as well. The work will be presented at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space Conference this September. Discuss in the NDSU forum at 3DPB.com.

 

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