First 3D Printed Circuit Launched into Space

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Information tech company L3Harris has announced that they have launched a 3D printed Radio Frequency (RF) circuit at the International Space Station. This launch is part of NASA’s Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE), and will test the space-viability of 3D printed RF tech.

MISSE is a NASA project that dates back to 2006, testing the space-worthiness of materials for future uses. “Carriers” containing the test materials are launched towards the ISS, then bolted to the outside of the orbiting MISSE Flight Facility for periods of up to four years. Since the carriers are on the outside, it lets NASA’s scientists test whether the materials will hold up to harsh space “weather” like solar radiation, extreme temperatures, and vacuum conditions.

In the past, MISSE has been used for tests on paints, protective clothing, film, computers, and even basil seeds. Today, MISSE’s cargo includes the extensive Polymers and Composite Experiment (1-3), which tests how polymers hold up in the vacuum of space.

An ISS Robotic Arm installing one of the MISSE Science Carriers on the outside of the MISSE Flight Facility (Image via NASA).

For this particular experiment, L3Harris sent up one of their radio frequency circuits. This circuit was printed by Nano Dimension, whose liquid deposition modeling DragonFly printer is capable of printing electronic circuitry. According to L3Harris, the circuit was launched in February 2021. The circuit, plus an assortment of 3D printed materials, will stay outside the ISS for six months before being brought back to Earth for testing.

The testing will be used to determine whether 3D printed RF circuits can be used on small satellites. Since the ISS is in a low-earth orbit, it’s a perfect testing ground for items meant to be used on low-flying small satellites.

The stakes here are high. Radio frequency is one of the only ways to communicate in space, and space explorers since Sputnik have relied heavily on it. Today, NASA primarily uses RF tech to communicate, although they are looking into alternatives.  L3Harris’ work has a more military bent, as they have previously been tapped to develop satellite missile defense systems and recently received a $137 million contract from Lockheed Martin for their digital GPS payloads. 

3D printed RF circuits have proven their worth, and 3D printing for use in space has a storied history. 3D printed RF circuits for space use is far less tested. But L3Harris is confident that their 3D-printed prototype will stand up to the harsh environment, and the hype.

“Additive manufacturing … is playing a critical role in advancing the development and applications of small and nano satellites and the overall Low Earth Orbit (LEO) economy,” said Arthur C. Paolella, a senior scientist at L3Harris. “The applications of 3D printing are broad, touching almost every aspect of research, design and manufacturing.”

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