Can an object be made lighter without losing how well it functions? What if that object is a component for a space mission?
These are two questions 11 students at North Dakota State University in Fargo are hoping to answer. The participants, ranging from freshmen to graduate students, are working with scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a NASA field center in California, to develop a better technique for 3D printing.
“It’s a long-term research project,” said Dr. Jeremy Straub, an assistant professor at NDSU who is coordinating the project and mentoring students. “We’re going to have many technical milestones before what we’re doing will ever find its ultimate use. In the short term, we’ll try to print some objects and test to make sure what we’re doing works.”
Mass matters when it comes to space exploration, especially when there are vehicles, equipment, supplies and other materials to consider.
“Cost analysis is an important factor,” said Ninad Kashyap, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering. “We want to make these components as light as possible, but we also want to make the entire process effective. Once we find that the objects are as structurally sound as they should be, we hope to use them in a prospective mission.”
Not only that, but as a press release from NDSU explains, having lighter but still effective components will allow for more scientific experiments or other supplies to be brought along.
“It could even mean a mission that wouldn’t be feasible becomes so,” the release continued.
Students involved in the 3D printing project are pursuing majors in not only mechanical engineering, but computer science and electrical engineering. They are currently working to develop a software algorithm which will reduce the amount of support structures required to fill an object.
“The use of tree-like designs and careful computation of supported loads allows the typical hexagonal support structure to be replaced by one with significantly less structural members and consequently less mass,” the release stated.
Because NDSU’s work with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is ongoing, there’s likely to be several students contributing to its success. Having a diverse mix of students is expected to be critical for the team’s ultimate longevity.
Matthew Johnson, who graduated this year with an electrical engineering degree, said he’d certainly be around to answer question and help newcomers like PhD student Andrew Jones, who joined the project in June.
“The Jet Propulsion Laboratory has had a lot of interest working with colleges. This project came about because their concept of making components lighter really aligned well with our technical capabilities. The meeting of those two ideas enabled us to go forward,” Straub continued.
Developing technology that may one day improve space exploration is a long process. Even here on Earth, the NDSU students are still several years from having even a demonstration of their improved printing process.
In the meantime, the team is breaking larger challenges into smaller and more manageable problems.
“The student team meets once a week with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory staff via videoconferencing and has a second ‘work’ meeting without them. Smaller sub-groups also meet at different times to work on their individual portions of the project for the week,” the release continued.
Having students work to resolve actual problems faced by NASA is inspirational, Straub said.
“For many of the students, who grew up watching science fiction and dreaming of the stars, working with NASA seems like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he added. “For some this initial taste of space exploration may translate into a career goal.”
No matter how long it takes, NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, North Dakota State University and an ever-growing field of scientists are committed to making their new and innovative technology a reality, on Earth and in the air.