VT Students to Send Unmanned 3D Printer Into Space Tomorrow Thanks to NASA’s RocketSat-X Program


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VTCOEVirginia Tech College of Engineering students will be making their mark in space, and not surprisingly, the loyal Hokies will be hoping to see their school logo 3D printed from the heavens above. Sports and school spirit notwithstanding, sending a 3D printer into space and evaluating its performance should prove not only to be a different experience for the twenty students of engineering and innovation, but one of fascinating and historical proportions, as space and 3D printing continue to become more and more synonymous.

mainThe 3D printer in question and what happens to it is definitely going to be of intense interest, as the equipment isn’t just something they will be planting nonchalantly inside the NASA two-stage Terrier-Improved Malemute suborbital sounding rocket–this is actually a 3D printer designed and built by the students themselves.

We’ve written a series of articles regarding the Made in Space 3D printer that was sent to the International Space Station (ISS) last year as the world watched. Traveling in a Space X Dragon Supply freighter, it was history in the making and pretty darned exciting for sure to see that astronauts were being sent the equipment to begin making the first 3D prints far outside of the usual creative realm. History very possibly is in the making again though as something new and different is happening with this launch. What makes it unique is that this will be the first 3D printer expected to work on its own while one hundred miles above the earth.

Built into an exercise that allows room for seven universities to participate, RocketSat-X is a national program centered around suborbital space experiments being performed by college students. Seven universities were able to participate in this experimental mission, and should be at launch as well:

  • Virginia Tech
  • University of Colorado; Boulder
  • Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho
  • The University of Puerto Rico
  • The University of Nebraska, Lincoln
  • Capitol Technology University of Maryland
  • The University of Hawaii Community Colleges


Blast off will occur from Wallops Island, Virginia, at 6 a.m. on Tuesday, August 11, with a backup date set for August 12 to 14.  For those who cannot attend the launch, NASA will also be streaming it live from their UStream site, which is a venue they use for a number of different educational programs and public relations material, as well as live streaming and video. They will also post ongoing information here. A computer and HackHD camera will be designated specifically for recording the following during the flight:

  • Temperatures
  • Pressure
  • Acceleration data
  • 3D printing activity

The students have been working on this project for the unmanned 3D printer for a year now at Virginia Tech. Most would agree that the twenty students chose a rather daunting task–or as Sebastian Welsh refers to it–a massive challenge. Welsh is a senior in computer science, and is the Virginia Tech RockSat-X team leader. His co-captain for the project is co-leading the team is John Mulvaney of Versailles, Kentucky, who is a senior in the department of aerospace and ocean engineering.

Working under the supervision and mentorship of Kevin Shinpaugh, an adjunct faculty member with aerospace and ocean engineering, these twenty undergrads will be the first to handle such a project, previously only handed to the experienced faculty of universities.

“In some ways, it’s a crazy idea, but in many ways, it’s groundbreaking,” said Shinpaugh.

In an inestimably complex project for students, they were challenged to create a 3D printer with very specific size requirements, as there’s certainly not unlimited room on any ride to space. Expense was not spared, as it cost the team $24,000 to be part of the program–and another $2,000 to make the 3D printer. They made their own and also used off-the-shelf parts, and were able to afford to participate through a sponsorship by Virginia Tech Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, and the Student Engineers’ Council of Virginia Tech.

“We wanted to be the pioneers of that and get to be the first to tackle the problem,” said Welsh.

“There’s a lot of practicality behind it,” said Welsh regarding 3D printing. “In the future as 3-D printing develops, we see a lot of benefits to it such as parts replication and repairs in space, so for example if a part in space breaks on a mission to Mars or the ISS, it takes a lot of time and money to get new parts up to the astronauts, if it’s even possible at all, but if there’s a means to manufacture the part on board the spacecraft it would make repairs a lot easier and potentially help save missions.”


While it is in microgravity for all of three minutes, the Hokie’s VT logo will be 3D printed–assuming all goes according to plan. According to tests conducted by NASA, including one where they shake the 3D printer up and down violently, the 3D printer should be able to withstand the trip and its effects.

“We plan to compare the object that was printed in microgravity to one that was printed here on Earth,” added Welsh. They will be able to retrieve the printer and data roughly seven hours after ‘splashdown.’ The goal is to see how the 3D printer performed, and then the students will continue to refine and expand its performance in terms of quality and what materials it’s able to use.

The equipment obviously had to be incredibly compact. And seriously hearty. While you may think you put your desktop 3D printer through the paces at home or in the workshop, this machine has to weigh less than thirty pounds and be able to handle 20 to 40 g’s while traveling at nearly 4,000 miles an hour.

Discuss your thoughts on the latest 3D printer going into space in the Virginia Tech 3D printer forum over at 3DPB.com.


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