NASA’s printed circuits may lead to more 3D printing applications

Engineers prepare the first hybrid printed electronic circuits to fly into space in a lab at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. Team lead Beth Paquette (left) stands with Jason Fleischer of the Laboratory for Physical Sciences (LPS), holding the curved metal plate with their printed electronics test assembly. Donghun Park, also with LPS, stands at right, while Wallops Electronics Engineer Brian Banks brings up the rear. | French: Des ingénieurs préparent les premiers circuits électroniques imprimés hybrides destinés à l'espace dans un laboratoire de la NASA à Wallops Flight Facility. Beth Paquette (à gauche), chef d'équipe, se tient aux côtés de Jason Fleischer, du Laboratory for Physical Sciences (LPS), qui tient la plaque métallique incurvée contenant l'assemblage de test de l'électronique imprimée. Donghun Park, également du LPS, se tient à droite, tandis que Brian Banks, ingénieur en électronique à Wallops, ferme la marche. Credits: NASA / Berit Bland

Engineers successfully tested hybrid printed circuits at the edge of space in an April 25 sounding rocket flight from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility near Chincoteague, Virginia. Electronic temperature and humidity sensors printed onto the payload bay door and onto two attached panels monitored the entire SubTEC-9 sounding rocket mission, recording data that was beamed to the ground.

While the experiment sought to prove the space-readiness of printed electronics technology, it attracted the attention of engineer Ryan McClelland at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. McClelland pioneered NASA’s use of Evolved Structures, spacecraft parts designed by artificial intelligence. He believes one “could use their printed electronics to add functionality to parts that may have been designed by AI and 3D printed themselves or even manufactured in orbit.

The experiment

Aerospace engineer Beth Paquette and electronics engineer Margaret Samuels of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland worked with colleagues at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, who developed the humidity-sensing ink. Partners from the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Physical Sciences (LPS) created the circuits.

Printed circuits allow a new level of functionality for smaller spacecraft, ever more common for both near-Earth and deep space missions, said Wallops electronics engineer Brian Banks. “The hybrid technology allows for circuits to be fabricated in locations that would typically not be available for conventional electronics modules,” Banks said. “Printing on curved surfaces could also be helpful for small, deployable sub-payloads where space is very limited.”

LPS engineer Jason Fleischer designed and printed the circuits for the April flight using printers capable of producing electronic traces thinner than the human eye can see. The SubTEC-9 launch marked a turning point in LPS’s development and validation of printed-circuit technology, he said.

Every part needs to work throughout the flight,” Fleischer said, “and a successful data return means all the circuits were up and working. I’m excited for this success as well as getting on another rocket and having more successes.

The team has printed electronic circuits on a variety of materials, including around curves and corners and on flexible parts. In another investigation, they printed X-ray instruments on flexible strips of Kapton plastic. The team is developing guidelines to make it easier for mission and instrument engineers to adopt these circuits.

Printed circuits provide a significant advantage in predictability and stability in antenna connections and design, Samuels said. “We can print the antenna on a curved surface like the outside of a rocket or spacecraft, increasing the angles at which it can send and receive signals in space.”

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