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Space is the final frontier, as wild and unexplored as anything else we’ve ever encountered. In the short time span in which we have navigated the heavens, we have barely scratched the surface of the universe. But we have benefited tremendously from space travel – including the development of new materials and products inspired by our trips beyond Earth.
One such development involves 3D printing, specifically a brand-new material that has made its way into space and is helping advance the exploration of the cosmos.
NASA’s ICESat-2 Project and 3D Printing
Not too long ago, NASA announced the creation of the ICESat-2 project. ICESat-2 – which stands for Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite – will use lasers and precision instruments to measure Earth’s elevation on the surface. This allows NASA to calculate the height of virtually any natural feature on the planet, specifically Greenland and Antarctica’s ever-changing ice sheets.
Slated to launch in 2018, ICESat-2 is the continuation of an earlier ICESat mission that ended in 2009. Technology has come a long way since ICESat was last in space, and that includes advances in 3D printing that are appearing on the satellite for the first time.
The New 3D Printing Material
Space travel is a tough business, especially for parts and components. Spacecrafts must be carefully designed and constructed in order to endure the rigors of space, and that means being made of the toughest materials we have available.
Ordinary 3D printing materials couldn’t make it, so Stratasys, the global leader in 3D printing, designed a custom 3D printing material named polyetherketoneketone (PEKK). PEKK can withstand space, including rapid temperature changes (in orbit, temps can range from -150 degrees Celsius to 150 degrees Celsius in the span of just an hour) and electrostatic charges that can build up rapidly and short-circuit electronic components.
PEKK combines the durability and heat resistance of Stratasys’ ULTEM 9085 material with the electrostatic dissipative properties of their ABS-ESD7 material to create a “super-material” that can do it all. It’s this material that will be used in creating specialty parts for ICESat-2 when it makes its maiden voyage in 2018.
We’re excited to see more 3D printing – including exotic new materials – in mankind’s quest to conquer space. As space travel becomes more prevalent over the next century, we expect 3D printing to become an even bigger part of the equation – and perhaps the technology that enables widespread adoption of space travel in the future.