Atmospheric confetti, inchworm crawlers, blankets of ground-penetrating radar: those are some of the unique mission concepts enabled by printable spacecraft technology.

Flexible printed electronics are already being used in commercial applications from medicine to packaging. In 10 years, the market for printable electronics is expected to reach $60 billion – several times NASA’s budget.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is working with Boeing and Xerox Palo Alto Research Center to find ways of leveraging that commercial investment to build complete functional satellites and spacecraft. Printable electronics has the potential to eliminate most or all of the touch labor which make conventional aerospace systems so expensive.

In the not-too-distant future, an engineer may design a space probe on her laptop in the morning, send it off to a printer, and pick up the printed hardware in the afternoon.

Printable electronics are especially suited for application to lightweight, two-dimensional structures such as solar sails and photovoltaic arrays. Printable electronics may enable innovative designs such as flat-sheet landers that flutter down to the surface like leaves, eliminating the need for expensive landing systems.

JPL has already completed a Phase I study funded by the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts and recently received a $500,000 Phase II award.  (Boeing and Xerox PARC were not involved in Phase I.) The Phase II study will address technical feasibility by designing and fabricating a bench-top prototype of a printed space probe and testing printed components to verify compatibility with the space environment.

Written by Astro1 on August 29th, 2012 , Innovation

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