Printable Spacecraft May Flutter Down on Alien Worlds
CREDIT: Kendra Short
Think small…and think today.
Micro-electronic devices are pervasive throughout society. Cellphones, iPhones and iPads…we’re awash in portable, but powerful hardware.
The onslaught of ultra-tiny technology is giving rise to the idea of “printable spacecraft” consisting of electronic circuits, power generation, sensing, fluid handling, propulsion, telecommunications and mobility subsystems — all integrated onto a single substrate.
The project, if successful, could allow scientists to one day pepper other worlds with scads of spacecraft the size of postage stamps or confetti.
Research on the notion of printable spacecraft is being scoped out under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program — one of many novel space initiatives detailed late last month at a NIAC symposium in Pasadena, Calif.
The innovative advanced concepts program is under the wing of NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist and is geared to foster technology and innovation within the space agency.
The basic idea is that flexible printed electronics have revolutionized consumer products such as cellular phones and PDAs, allowing greater functionality with decreasing size and weight.
“We think the same can be done for spacecraft,” reported Kendra Short, manager of the Mechanical Systems Division at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Is this a viable concept? I think the answer to that question is yes.”
Short and JPL colleague David Van Buren have been looking at the present-day and blossoming commercial use of flexible electronics.
That industry is now focused on such items as photovoltaics, interactive screens and displays, as well as a number of biomedical and military applications.
One of the largest users of flexible electronics is in the packaging industry, Short said. Smart labels — also called radio frequency identification tags — serve as intelligent bar codes that tell a networked system to track every product that a shopper plops into a shopping cart.
Short predicted that in 10 years or less, the marketplace for printable and flexible electronics will be valued at some $60 billion in commercial products.
NASA can’t make this kind of investment and must leverage the developments in the commercial sector, Short said. The printing process, she added, has been adapted to work with flexible mechanical substrates and specialized inks with specific conductive, insulating, photovoltaic, mechanical and chemical properties.
That being the case, there are a number of bottom-line messages: A designer can print just about every subsystem required for an entire spacecraft.
Moreover, once designed, the incremental cost per unit is low — with just the expense of substrate, materials and the printing machine’s operation and maintenance.
All that touch labor for metal machining, electronics fabrication, cable wire-up, and physical integration to pull together a spacecraft are gone. Hundreds or thousands of units can be mass manufactured.
“A viable mission could be mounted using these technologies,” Van Buren said about the initiative. Both he and Short spotlighted the use of atmospheric “flutterflyers” as well as “flutterlanders” — devices that reach a surface imbued with sensor smarts.
One of the areas where there is a lot of maturity is in the area of printed chemical sensors, Van Buren said.
“Flat-sheet spacecraft” can be deployed high above a target world and flutter to the surface like a leaf, eliminating the need for large and complex landing systems. The spacecraft would see a low-G impact at touchdown.
“Just like dropping leaflets out of a helicopter, saying ‘give up and come over to my side,’ these leaflets can be in emplaced in the atmosphere and flutter to the ground. They would fly the wind and collect data all the time…transmitting very simple telemetry back,” Van Buren said.
Van Buren also pointed out that balloons sent to drift in far-off planetary atmospheres could sport a veneer of printable electronics. Similarly, solar sails could carry printed spacecraft subsystems emblazoned across their large, outstretched sails.
“We think this crazy idea holds together. We haven’t seen anything show- stopping,” Van Buren concluded.
Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is a winner of last year's National Space Club Press Award and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines. He has written for SPACE.com since 1999.