Sending 3D Printed Parts To Mars: A Look Inside JPL’s Additive Manufacturing Center

With the Mars 2020 mission now past the halfway point between Earth and its destination, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab recently released a couple of stories about the 3D-printed parts that made it aboard the Perseverance rover. Tucked into its aeroshell and ready for its high-stakes ride to the Martian surface, Perseverance sports eleven separate parts that we created with additive manufacturing. It’s not the first time a spacecraft has flown with parts made with additive manufacturing technique, but it is the first time JPL has created a vehicle with so many printed parts.

To take a closer look at what 3D-printing for spaceflight-qualified components looks like, and to probe a little into the rationale for additive versus traditional subtractive manufacturing techniques, I reached out to JPL and was put in touch with Andre Pate, Additive Manufacturing Group Lead, and Michael Schein, lead engineer on one of the mission’s main scientific instruments. They both graciously gave me time to ask questions and geek out on all the cool stuff going on at JPL in terms of additive manufacturing, and to find out what the future holds for 3D-printing and spaceflight.

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An Up-Close Look At The First Martian Helicopter

The news was recently abuzz with stories of how the Mars 2020 mission, which launched from Cape Canaveral at the end of July, had done something that no other spacecraft had done before: it had successfully charged the batteries aboard a tiny helicopter that is hitching a ride in the belly of the Mars 2020 rover, Perseverance.

Although the helicopter, aptly named Ingenuity, is only a technology demonstrator, and flight operations will occupy but a small fraction of the time Mars 2020 is devoting to its science missions, it has still understandably captured the popular imagination. This will be humanity’s first attempt at controlled, powered flight on another planet, after all, and that alone is enough to spur intense interest in what amounts to a side-project for NASA. So here’s a closer look at Ingenuity, and what it takes to build a helicopter that will explore another world.

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NASA Making Big Upgrades To Their Big Dish DSS43

When it comes to antenna projects, we usually cover little ones here. From copper traces on a circuit board to hand-made units for ham radio. But every once in a while it’s fun to look at the opposite end of the spectrum, and anyone who craves such change of pace should check out DSS43’s upgrade currently underway.

Part of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) built to communicate with spacecraft that venture far beyond Earth, Deep Space Station 43 is a large dish antenna with a diameter of 70 meters and largest of the Canberra, Australia DSN complex. However, the raw reflective surface area is only as good as the radio equipment at its center, which are now outdated and thus focus of this round of upgrades.

The NASA page linked above offers a few pieces of fun trivia about DSS43 and its capabilities. If that whets an appetite for more, head over to Twitter for a huge treasure trove. Whoever is in charge of Canberra DSN’s Twitter account has an endless fountain of facts and very eager to share them in response to questions, usually tagged with #DSS43. Example: the weight of DSS43 is roughly 8.5 million kilograms, 4 million of which is moving structure. They also shared time lapse video clips of work in progress, one of which is embedded after the break.

Taking the uniquely capable DSS43 offline for upgrades does have some consequences, one of which is losing our ability to send commands to distant interplanetary probe Voyager 2. (Apparently smaller DSN dishes can be arrayed to receive data, but only DSS43 can send commands.) Such sacrifices are necessary as an investment for the future, with upgrade completion scheduled for January 2021. Just in time to help support Perseverance (formerly “Mars 2020”) rover‘s arrival in February and many more missions for years to come.

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Rapid Prototyping Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, June 10 at noon Pacific for the Rapid Prototyping Hack Chat with Erika Earl!

When one thinks of the Jet Propulsion Lab, the NASA lab responsible for such amazing feats of engineering as Mars rovers and galaxy-exploring spacecraft like Voyager, one does not necessarily think of it as a hotbed of medical innovation. But when the COVID-19 pandemic started its march around the globe, JPL engineers decided to turn their skills from exploring other worlds to helping keep people alive in this one. Fittingly, the challenge they tackled was perhaps the most technically challenging: to build a ventilator that’s simple enough to be built in large numbers, enough to make a difference to the predicted shortfall, but that does the non-trivial job of keeping people breathing as safely as possible.

The result was VITAL, or Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally. It was designed, prototyped, and tested on an incredibly ambitious timetable: 37 days total. That number alone would be shocking enough, but when one adds in the disruptions and disconnection forced on the team of JPL engineers by the sudden need to self-isolate and work remotely that came up in the middle of the design process, it’s a wonder the team was able to get anywhere. But they worked through the technical and managerial issues and delivered a design that has now been licensed out to eight manufacturers under a no-fee license.

What does it take to bring something as complex as a ventilator to market in so short a time? To delve into that question, Supply Frame’s Erika Earl, who was part of the VITAL team, will stop by the Hack Chat. We’ll talk to her about being on the JPL team, what the design and prototyping process was like, and how the lessons learned here can apply to any team-based rapid-prototyping effort. You may not be building a ventilator in 37 days, but chances are good you can learn something useful from those who did.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, June 10 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.
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FDA Approves Ventilator Designed By NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Yesterday NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced that their ventilator design has received Emergency Use Authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration. This paves the way for the design to be manufactured for use in the treatment of COVID-19 patients.

JPL, which is tightly partnered with the California Institute of Technology, designed the ventilator for rapid manufacturing to meet the current need for respiratory tools made scarce by the pandemic. The design process took only 37 days and was submitted for FDA approval around April 23rd. They call it VITAL — Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally — a nod to NASA’s proclivity for acronyms.

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Hacking Mars: InSight Mole Is On The Move Again

Your job might be tough, but spare a thought for any of the engineers involved in the Mars InSight lander mission when they learned that one of the flagship instruments aboard the lander, indeed the very instrument for which the entire mission was named, appeared to be a dud. That’s a bad day at work by anyone’s standards, and it happened over the summer when it was reported that the Mars Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport lander’s Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP³), commonly known as “The Mole”, was not drilling itself into the Martian regolith as planned.

But now, after months of brainstorming and painstaking testing on Earth and on Mars, it looks as if the mole is working again. NASA has announced that, with a little help from the lander’s backhoe bucket, the HP³ penetrator has dug itself 2 cm into the soil. It’s a far cry from the 5-meter planned depth for its heat-transfer experiments, but it’s progress, and the clever hack that got the probe that far might just go on to salvage a huge chunk of the science planned for the $828 million program.

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Giant LEDs, Ruby Lasers, Hologram Displays, And Other Cool Stuff Seen At Maker Faire Rome

Hackers from all over Europe descended upon Rome last weekend for the Maker Faire that calls itself the “European Edition”. This three-day event is one of the largest Maker Faires in the world — they had 27,000 school students from all over Italy and Europe attend on Friday alone.

This was held at Fiera Roma, a gigantic conference complex two train stops south of the Rome airport — kind of in the middle of nowhere. I was told anecdotally that this is the largest event the complex hosts but have no data to back up that claim. One thing’s for certain, three days just wasn’t enough for me to enjoy everything at the show. There was a huge concentration of really talented hardware hackers on hand, many who you’ll recognize as creators of awesome projects regularly seen around Hackaday.

Here’s a whirlwind tour of some of my favorites. On that list are a POV holographic display, giant cast-resin LEDs, an optical-pump ruby laser built out of parts from AliExpress, blinky goodness in cube-form, and the Italian audience’s appreciation for science lectures (in this case space-related). Let’s take a look.

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