While 3D printing is changing how parts are made all around the world, the technology is starting to changing things above it too.
The latest example: Using FDM® 3D printing technology, Italy’s Instituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN – National Institute for Nuclear Physics), has produced certified 3D printed parts for use on the International Space Station (ISS). As part of an ad hoc bilateral agreement between the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and the Russian Space Agency ‘Roscosmos’, the INFN used its Stratasys Fortus 450mc FDM 3D Printer to produce the entire mechanical structure of a first-of-its-kind cosmic UV telescope currently situated aboard the ISS, realized under the coordination of the ASI.
Designed to study terrestrial and cosmic UV emissions from the ISS, the telescope named ‘Mini-EUSO’ (Multiwavelength Imaging New Instrument for the Extreme Universe Space Observatory) was recently launched into space onboard a Soyuz rocket and successfully placed on an earth-facing window of the ISS’ Russian Zvezda module.
“With an orbit of about 90 minutes, Mini-EUSO records all space and atmospheric objects and events within sight, including UV emissions from night-earth, transient luminous events, meteors, space debris and more,” explains Marco Ricci, Lead Researcher at Laboratori Nazionali di Frascati INFN and INFN Country Manager for Collaboration EUSO SPB2 Italia. The final scientific objective is to produce a high-resolution map of the Earth in the UV range (300-400 nm), which is expected to significantly advance research on cosmic rays, but also serve as an important experiment for future space missions.
The impact of 3D printing on this project has been transformational. By using 3D printed polymers throughout the production of the Mini-EUSO’s mechanical structure, the team reduced the overall cost of the project by a factor of ten and saved a year a year of development time. “It’s an incredible outcome for us that I have to say I never expected from 3D printing,” Ricci says.
Producing the mechanical structure of Mini-EUSO presented several challenges, says Tommaso Napolitano, Head of Mechanics Design and Construction Department at INFN in Rome. Most notably, the team needed a material that could meet the stringent certification requirements of the aerospace industry and the ISS, as well as bear the mechanical stress and vibrations of a rocket launch.
“We explored numerous ways in which we could achieve the expected performance while meeting material certification,” Tomasso says. “We even built a full prototype in aluminum, one of the most commonplace materials for aerospace. But the results were far from expectation – the structure was too heavy and it did not provide the insulation required for the interior electrical currents.”
ULTEM™ 9085 resin proved an ideal alternative. Not only is the material extremely durable, but it adds little weight offers exceptional insulation properties, and is chemical and thermal resistant. “It’s fair to say that without the capability to print the Mini-EUSO structure in this material, we would not have met the ISS’ safety and weight restrictions,” Tomasso says.
The Mini-EUSO project, coordinated and funded by ASI, has been developed by the JEM EUSO Collaboration (Joint Experiment Missions – Extreme Universe Space Observatory), a wider international program including France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland and United States. The initiative aims to explore the origin and nature of ultra-high energy cosmic rays from space and will see the 3D printed Mini-EUSO telescope stay on the ISS for the next three years.