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Alogo redeyes enthusiastic and persistent as humans are about the exploration of space, it is a hostile environment. When we send anything to space, the first question, of course, is how to get it there. The second major consideration is using stable materials that can help systems to perform their required duties while withstanding long-term exposure. The materials must also be able to survive for great periods of time. The technology of 3D printing gains more validity with each important product — and headline — but none renders it quite as valuable or newsworthy as when we send 3D printing technology into space.

And now, 3D printed parts will function externally in outer space for the first time, supporting the COSMIC-2 satellite mission. COSMIC-2 design and development began in 2011 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Critical components of the COSMIC-2 design are antenna arrays, of which they needed 30, for a project under budget constraints. Because of that, they decided to look for a material that could be made less expensively and faster than astroquartz.

A computer-generated image of the FORMOSAT-7 - COSMIC-2, scheduled to launch in 2016

A computer-generated image of the FORMOSAT-7 – COSMIC-2, scheduled to launch in 2016.

Astroquartz can withstand high temperatures and is very strong, lending itself to the unique and critical designs engineered for space. For the latest project though, 3D printing is behind the creation of 30 antenna array supports for the FORMOSAT-7 Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC-2) satellite mission.

Looking for an alternative, and interested in the idea of using 3D printed materials that could handle the demands of space, JPL contacted RedEye, a Stratasys company, to see if they could handle the complex array designs. With 3D printing behind them, this was an affirmative answer all around.

The project for building materials designed to last in space had to meet specific and strict strength and load requirements. RedEye met the requirements using FDM parts, custom-designed, with Stratasys’ ULTEM 9085 material, a thermoplastic that has similar strength to metals like aluminum but weighs much less and works well for applications that demand thermal and chemical resistance.

“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 seemingly endless for projects here on Earth.”

The complex arrays are made of ULTEM, a high-strength FDM thermoplastic that was tested and met NASA flight hardware requirements. Image credit - RedEye

The complex arrays are made of ULTEM, a high-strength FDM thermoplastic that was tested and met NASA flight hardware requirements. Image credit – RedEye

While ULTEM 9085 is recommended for use in the transporation industry, this is certainly testing the material at an entirely new level. This very unique material is used most especially in aerospace, marine, and ground vehicle applications.

“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.”

Helping us to gather knowledge about the unknown, it’s becoming clear that with 3D technology, we may be able to do all the things we’ve hoped to reach for in terms of exploration. Have you been following these missions? What do you think of NASA’s decision to use 3D printed materials over astroquartz? Let us know in the COSMIC-2 Satellite forum thread at 3DPB.com.

Some history on the project: The Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC-1) was put into orbit in 2006 to collect ionospheric and atmospheric data of temperature, moisture, and pressure globally, The COSMIC-1 project has since offered great scientific investigation and improvements in weather forecasting, and because of that, the U.S. and Taiwan have created a follow-up project called FORMOSAT-7/COSMIC-2 to launch six satellites into orbit in late 2016 and another six in 2018 in hopes to capture enormous amounts of data for long-term weather prediction models and research.

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