Students 3D Print a Tool for Exploring Beneath Ice in Outer Space

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NASA not only uses 3D printing frequently itself, it encourages others to do so, particularly students, with programs such as the CubeSat Launch Initiative, for example. In return for its support of the technological experiments of students, NASA often is rewarded with new tools for use in space exploration. Recently, a team of students from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University developed a 3D printed tool that could help astronauts to explore underneath ice-covered surfaces like those on Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus. According to NASA, microbial life could potentially survive beneath these surfaces.

The tool was developed as part of the Micro-g Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams Challenge (Micro-g NExt), which tasks undergraduate students to develop a tool that addresses a real, current space exploration challenge. The project is designed to encourage students to research, explore and develop new technologies and to engage them in real-world engineering and problem-solving concepts.

“NASA Microgravity Project provides a unique out-of-class learning experience for our students dealing with the aerospace environment,” said Sathya Gangadharan, Ph.D., Professor of Mechanical Engineering and co-advisor on the project along with Pedro Llanos, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Spaceflight Operations and Payload and Integration Lab Supervisor.

[Image: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University]

The Under Ice Sampling Device was one of four challenges, the others being a Module Leak Repair System, Sharp Edge Detection and Removal/Covering, and Zip Tie Cutters. The Embry-Riddle Microgravity Club chose to take on the ice device challenge, which required the creation of a tool that would collect, seal and store at least one core sample and would interface with a NASA engineered submersible vehicle to obtain a subsurface ice sample in an underwater environment.

“The device was required to be stored in a 3″x 6″ cylinder, not including the aluminum mounting plate,” said Cory White, Microgravity Club President and Aerospace Engineering major. “The purpose of the device is to extend the drill bit 5 inches from its stored configuration to the surface of the ice and then another 3 inches into the ice to collect a half inch core sample.”

Embry-Riddle’s 3D Printing Club helped with the inner support structure of the device, and the Embry-Riddle Future Space Explorers and Developers Society created the fiberglass cylinder that holds the stainless steel drill bit.

The devices were tested at NASA’s Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, which includes a 6.2 million-gallon indoor pool used to train astronauts for spacewalks. Unfortunately, the team was unable to collect a core sample due to an electrical short during testing, but White said that the project was still valuable for the real-world experience it offered the students.

“The opportunity to use these skills outside of the classroom is supplemental and incredibly beneficial to our learning here at Embry-Riddle,” White said. “I hope that our contributions to the challenge also proved to be beneficial to NASA in providing them with a student perspective.”

In addition to developing a successful proposal and designing, fabricating, integrating and testing their idea, the student team also had to write a professional report to NASA with the results of their project, participate in a successful fundraising campaign and work with K-12 students to raise awareness of STEM education as it applies to the aerospace industry. Despite the electrical mishap, Llanos calls the experiment a success and hopes that NASA will one day use technology similar to that designed by the students.

“Knowing our students were able to test their experiment in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center was a great satisfaction,” he said.

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