NASA engineers test revolutionary printed electronics in space

This technology promises to revolutionize spacecraft design, save space, and enhance communication capabilities, opening up new frontiers for exploration and discovery.
Abdul-Rahman Oladimeji Bello
Printed Electronics
Representational image of printed electronics.

SDI Productions/iStock  

In the vast expanse of space, engineers constantly push the boundaries of innovation to do more with less. Today's small spacecraft is equipped with sensors, guidance and control systems, and operating electronics, making efficient use of every available space. But what if we could take it a step further and revolutionize the way we integrate electronics into these spacecraft?

Recently, aerospace engineer Beth Paquette and electronics engineer Margaret Samuels from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, embarked on an audacious mission. They sought to prove the space-readiness of printed electronics technology, a game-changing innovation that could reshape how we design and build spacecraft for future missions.

The concept is simple yet powerful – instead of conventional electronics modules, they developed hybrid printed circuits that could be fabricated directly onto the spacecraft's structure. These circuits were so thin that the human eye couldn't even discern their existence, with traces measuring just about 30 microns, half the width of a human hair. The potential benefits of this technology are immense, ranging from saving valuable space on board to enhancing antenna and radio frequency applications.

On April 25, a sounding rocket soared into the sky from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility near Chincoteague, Virginia, carrying the payload that housed the printed electronics experiment. Electronic temperature and humidity sensors were printed onto the rocket's payload bay door and two attached panels. Throughout the entire SubTEC-9 sounding rocket mission, these sensors diligently monitored the conditions, gathering crucial data that was then beamed back to Earth.

The successful experiment was a collaborative effort. Colleagues at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, developed the humidity-sensing ink essential for the printed sensors, while partners from the University of Maryland's Laboratory for Physical Sciences (LPS) were responsible for creating the circuits.

What makes printed electronics groundbreaking?

Brian Banks, an electronics engineer from Wallops, explained, "The hybrid technology allows for circuits to be fabricated in locations that would typically not be available for conventional electronics modules."

With the ability to print on curved surfaces and even around corners, the potential applications for these circuits are vast. For instance, they could be invaluable for small, deployable sub-payloads where space is at an absolute premium.

The implications of printed electronics extend beyond just sensors. A major improvement comes in the predictability and stability of antenna connections and design. Traditionally, antenna connections were made through a process called wire bonding, which could be messy and imprecise.

However, with printed electronics, the antenna can be directly printed on curved surfaces, such as the exterior of a rocket or spacecraft. This increases the angles at which signals can be sent and received, significantly improving communication capabilities in space.

Furthermore, future missions could benefit from printing temperature sensors throughout the interior surfaces of spacecraft. By investing in this technology, mission operators could better understand how heating and cooling affect the entire spacecraft during close encounters with intense heat sources, like the Sun.

The team's pioneering work in printed electronics has not gone unnoticed. Engineer Ryan McClelland from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center envisions a future where printed electronics could be used to add functionality to spacecraft parts designed by artificial intelligence, known as Evolved Structures. These parts could be 3D-printed or even manufactured in space, further pushing the boundaries of space exploration.

As the SubTEC-9 rocket launched, the team eagerly awaited the moment of truth. The success of this mission would prove the viability of their printed sensors, paving the way for more flexible and efficient spacecraft design. Margaret Samuels couldn't hide her excitement, saying, "We're really thrilled about the fact that this rocket test will prove our printed sensors."

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