Reposted from Stratasys Blog

We’re pleased to announce a new frontier in aerospace 3D printing. Stratasys Direct Manufacturing has partnered with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to 3D print 30 antenna array supports for the FORMOSAT-7 Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC-2) satellite mission.

A computer-generated image of the FORMOSAT-7/COSMIC-2, scheduled to launch in 2016. Image credit: NSPO, NOAA, NASA/JPL, UCAR, SSTL

Scheduled for launch in 2016, the COSMIC-2 mission marks the first time 3D printed parts will function externally in outer space. The antenna arrays will capture atmospheric and ionospheric data to help improve weather prediction models and advance meteorological research on Earth.

In order to keep the project on time and on budget, NASA needed an alternative to machining the parts out of astroquartz, the material traditionally used for antenna arrays. They turned to Stratasys Direct Manufacturing to produce 3D printed parts that could handle the complex array designs and also be strong enough to withstand the environmental demands of outer space.

The complex arrays are made of ULTEM 9085, a high-strength FDM thermoplastic that was tested and met NASA class B/B1 flight hardware requirements. Image credit: Stratasys Direct Manufacturing

Stratasys Direct Manufacturing built the custom-designed parts using FDM-based Fortus 900mc 3D Production Systems from Stratasys. FDM was the only additive manufacturing process able to meet the project’s strength and load requirements. NASA chose durable ULTEM 9085 material, a thermoplastic that has similar strength to metals like aluminum but weighs much less.

“Using FDM for a project like this has never been done before and it demonstrates how 3D printing is transforming the manufacturing industry,” said Jim Bartel, SVP of Strategy, Marketing & Business Development at Stratasys Direct Manufacturing. “If this technology can be validated for use in the harsh environment of outer space, its capabilities are seemingly endless for projects here on Earth.”

While ULTEM 9085 has been well-vetted in the aerospace industry and is flammability rated by the Federal Aviation Administration, it has not previously been used or tested for an exterior application in space. The material passed qualification testing to meet NASA class B/B1 flight hardware requirements. To protect the antenna array supports against oxygen atoms and ultraviolet radiation, a layer of NASA’s S13G protective paint was applied to the parts.

“The intricate design of the arrays and the durability of ULTEM 9085 made additive manufacturing a perfect choice for this project,” said Joel Smith, regional account manager at Stratasys Direct Manufacturing. “Not only did it prove the strength of 3D printed parts, but using FDM 3D printing technology to build these supports significantly reduced time and cost.”

Learn more about how Stratasys Direct Manufacturing and NASA used 3D printing to build parts to meet these unique specifications by reading the case study.