When envisioning the spacecraft of the future, you may conjure up images of the Enterprise, or Serenity. But one of NASA’s latest projects being carried out in partnership with the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) suggests that the future may take a rather unexpected shape: small paper-thin printed electronics that will float across the surface of foreign planets. Once complete, the craft, which will consist largely of heat and light sensors, will be ideal for testing the environment on the surface of Mars.
NASA’s goal is to use the work being done at PARC to create a 100-percent printed spacecraft, although the design might be a bit different than the typical space shuttle you may be imagining. A more accurate image would be closer to confetti, as the thin plastic sheets of electronics are being designed to flutter over a wide area of Mars’ surface to create an “environmental network.”
“If you think about what a spacecraft does, it has scientific sensors that collect the data, processes it, downlinks it over a communications system to a relay satellite or direct to Earth, it provides its own power, it’s own thermal controls, and all of the types of functions that you would normally get out of a spacecraft can be implemented with printed electronics,” explained NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory lead researcher Kendra Short in an interview with Digital Manufacturing Report. “This is where PARC comes in. Not all the functionality is where you would want it to be today for a complex spacecraft, but we’d like to see how far we can push this concept to make a spacecraft, essentially a sheet of plastic, and perform all of the functionalities of a scientific spacecraft.”
In addition to sensors, PARC is also printing the electronics that will communicate the network’s signal to a non-printed piece of electronics, a small, low-profile processor that makes sense of the data. This information is then passed through a PARC-printed antenna that will communicate it to its end destination.
“The components that we think are really important for space applications are the ability to sense multiple things on a single platform, as well as the ability to wirelessly transmit that,” said Gregory Whiting, a member of PARC’s Electronic Materials and Devices Laboratory. “And you can imagine that this could be powered by printed batteries or large printed solar cells, and really think of it as a whole platform.”
To make this possible, PARC will partner with NASA for the next 14 months, after which Boeing will step in to test the electronics’ survivability in extreme environmental conditions, such as what you would see on Mars.
This next phase will involve placing the electronics in specially designed chambers that will test resilience to radiation, extremely high and low temperatures, as well as the ability to function in a vacuum.
Currently, PARC’s research is leveraging their inkjet printers to develop the flexible sensors, as it is ideal for prototyping stages. However, once NASA is ready for launch, PARC will switch over to the high-volume gravure printing method.
Like most other technologies developed to meet lofty and newsworthy goals, printed electronics should soon see representation in everyday consumer electronics as well, as their lightweight, flexible nature offers advantages that traditional silicon chips simply can’t.
But the more exciting prospect from NASA’s perspective isn’t the technology’s potential for consumer applications, or even the space-bound sensors themselves, but the opportunities that such a nimble manufacturing process offer engineers whose heads have long-since surpassed the clouds.
Not only are printed electronics immune to the issue of withstanding the intense vibrations of the launch into space, but they would also mean that like the 3D printer that’s coming to the International Space Station next year, an electronics printer offers astronauts the option of printing on demand, and thus always knowing the can meet their mission’s needs even if those needs change.
“If you send a rover to Mars, it can only use what currently exists on board,” said Whiting. “But if that rover had a printer as part of the system then you can imagine actually manufacturing somewhere else.”