NASA wants to print a spacecraft, but first it’s printing the electronics

PARC printed electronics

PARC — home of the laser printer, ethernet, the graphical user interface and the Alto computer — is best known for its role in Silicon Valley’s past. But in late July, a window in the belly of the center’s Palo Alto campus provided a look at the future: printable electronics that could someday go into space.

The window led to PARC’s clean room, where bodysuit-protected researchers milled about while a printer the size of an office copy machine whirred. For three or four months now, a PARC team has been working with NASA on printing heat and light sensors that would be ideal for environmental sensing on the surface of Mars. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory lead researcher Kendra Short said that eventually they’ll be able to print other types of electronics that take in solar energy, communicate wirelessly and more.

The electronics are printed on thin plastic sheets. Ideally, they could be released on Mars and flutter about on the surface over a wide area. Information such as heat or light would be picked up by the sensors and then communicated wirelessly back to Earth.

“We’re sort of building it up piece by piece, starting with design,” said Gregory Whiting, a member of the Electronic Materials and Devices Laboratory at PARC. “For space applications in particular, our sort of dream is we’d like to do some tests outside of Earth. We’d like to put things on rockets and see if we can measure useful things and if they’ll stand up to the right environments.”

The project is part of a larger goal of NASA’s: print an entire spacecraft. PARC is working with them on phase 2 of the mission, which will last 14 months and result in working printed electronics it can present to NASA next year. NASA will then partner with Boeing to test the electronics’ compatibility with harsh environmental conditions such as radiation, high and low temperature, and a vacuum.

Printed electronics are already common in consumer devices. Most are made with inkjet printers that print specialized ink. The printer in the PARC clean room resembled an inkjet printer, or even a 3D printer, but they’re also looking into gravure printing — big cylinders that could rapidly press ink onto plastic, much like how a newspaper is printed. That would open up faster, cheaper electronics printing.

PARC printed electronics

For now, PARC is rolling out smaller applications for printed electronics. We’re talking about things such as shipping labels, for example, that can track data like location and notify handlers if a package grows too hot.

In the more distant future, a smaller electronics printer could be packed aboard a spacecraft and print electronics on demand, much like the 3D printer that will board the International Space Station next year.

Electronic Materials and Devices Laboratory lead Janos Veres said that one of the big benefits of printed electronics is that there is no waste. With traditional manufacturing, you have to wash away chemicals and other residue once the electronics are complete. Printable electronics are made with only the necessary materials, meaning there is no extra stuff for an astronaut to worry about. Electronics manufacturers would also no longer have to worry about building parts that can withstand the vibration and other rigors of the launch into space.

“The human exploration side of things is very interested in being able to do things such as manufacture circuitry in space on a space station on a lunar outpost,” Short said. “An astronaut could decide what they wanted to make and then produce whatever is needed from a circuitry standpoint. Whether you think that’s (accomplishable) in the next decade or not is of varying opinions.”

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