Carbon Fiber 3D Printing Proves Ideal for Kentucky CubeSat
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on November 30, 2016 |
CRP USA utilizes carbon fiber–filled nylon to 3D print parts for the KySat-2 CubeSat.

Demand for carbon fiber is only increasing. It's no surprise why: as a strong and lightweight alternative to metal, the material can be used for high-performance applications at a fraction of the cost of traditional metal counterparts. Producing carbon fiber parts, however, remains a labor-intensive and expensive process.

Additive manufacturing (AM) could potentially disrupt the world of carbon fiber manufacturing by introducing automated methods for fabricating geometrically complex, carbon fiber–reinforced parts on demand. As it stands, there are very few technologies that can perform this task. There are even fewer methods for implementing popular selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D printing technology to 3D print with carbon fiber.

One of the few carbon fiber-based SLS powder suppliers is CRP USA. CRP USA is partnered with the Italy-based CRP group, which has built upon its roots in F1 racing to develop a variety of advanced composite nylon materials that can be used for SLS 3D printing of AM performance parts.

The KySat-2 CubeSat from University of Kentucky and Morehead State University. (Image courtesy of CRP USA.)
The KySat-2 CubeSat from University of Kentucky and Morehead State University. (Image courtesy of CRP USA.)

Included in CRP USA's Windform brand of SLS materials is Windform XT 2.0, a carbon fiber–reinforced nylon strong enough to send into space. This is exactly what researchers from the University of Kentucky and Morehead State University did when they sent the KySat-2 CubeSat with 3D-printed parts into Earth's orbit.

The KySat-2 CubeSat

A miniature satellite often made with off-the-shelf components, CubeSats are comprised of cubic units measuring 3.9 x 3.9 x 4.5 in (10×10×11.35 cm) and weighing no more than 2.9 lbs (1.33 kg) per unit. CubeSats have become popular for academic and small-scale experimentation due to the standardized format and low cost required for creating them.

Deployed from the International Space Station or as a secondary payload on a launch vehicle, these small satellites can be used to test out a variety of technologies before investment into larger-scale satellites.

The stellar gyroscope allows for positional tracking of a CubeSat by tracking the movement of stars. (Image courtesy of Space Systems Laboratory.)
The stellar gyroscope allows for positional tracking of a CubeSat by tracking the movement of stars. (Image courtesy of Space Systems Laboratory.)

While the CubeSat format may be somewhat standardized, what goes into every one of these small satellites is up to the researcher. At the University of Kentucky and Morehead State University, engineering students are regularly tasked with developing novel space experiments, including CubeSats that demonstrate new technologies that may go into larger satellites.

In the case of the KySat-2, the team aimed to validate the concept of a stellar gyroscope, in which the motion of stars could be used to track the changes in a satellite's orientation. Such a concept could be used to address issues associated with the miniaturization of space devices. Other technologies to be tested by the KySat-2 included a distributed network computing architecture, power and radio systems.

3D Printing Out of This World Part

Nothing is much more specialized than something that will fly into space. For this reason, researchers and engineers are increasingly relying on 3D printing to create custom components.

In the case of students from University of Kentucky and Morehead State University, it was necessary to create a number of novel components. 3D printing would prove to be an ideal technology for the team, as the KySat-2 would be built by the universities' students and engineers themselves, with most of the subsystems designed in-house. Creating a custom component with 3D printing is one thing, but sending that component into space is something else entirely. For this reason, the team turned to CRP USA and its Windform XT 2.0 material.

Mounting hardware for the KySat-2’s camera system, 3D printed with Windform XT 2.0. (Image courtesy of CRP USA.)
Mounting hardware for the KySat-2’s camera system, 3D printed with Windform XT 2.0. (Image courtesy of CRP USA.)

As a carbon fiber–reinforced nylon, Windform XT 2.0 proved to be both robust enough and light enough for use in the KySat-2. On the one hand, the material was tough enough to survive in low Earth orbit; on the other hand, it had the reduced weight necessary to ensure that the CubeSat could be launched into space. CRP USA ultimately 3D printed five different parts from Windform XT 2.0 for the KySat-2 team: a camera annulus, a lens cover, deployable extensions, antenna clips and battery holders.

Mounting bracket for the onboard batteries, 3D printed with Windform XT 2.0. (Image courtesy of CRP USA.)
Mounting bracket for the onboard batteries, 3D printed with Windform XT 2.0. (Image courtesy of CRP USA.)

Twyman Clements, KySat-2 project manager at the Kentucky Space program, said of the material, “There were several 3D-printed components on the KySat-2 made by CRP USA from CRP Technology’s proprietary material Windform XT 2.0. One of the subsystems is the camera systems that acts as an attitude determination system called Stellar Gyro.”

Clements added, “The process and the material were critical to achieve the right components for KySat-2.” In fact, Windform XT 2.0 is the only other 3D printing plastic that qualifies for flight under NASA / ESA outgassing regulations. The other being ULTEM 9085.

From Earth to Orbit

The KySat-2 was sent into Earth orbit on Nov. 19, 2013, as a part of NASA’s ElaNa IV mission out of Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Thirty-five minutes after the project was deployed from a Minotaur I rocket built by Orbital Sciences, the KySat-2 was able to beacon telemetry data and broadcast its radio signal.

The CubeSat was then able to execute its mission, taking photos of the earth over the northern hemisphere and then photos of starfields over the southern hemisphere to determine its own position in space. The launch of the CubeSat can be seen in the video below.

Now that the team behind the KySat-2 has validated the design of the satellite and the technology onboard, the KySat-3 has been proposed. The KySat-3 would be developed founded on its predecessor with a goal of launching in the very near future.

CRP USA’s missions are far from over. Windform XT 2.0 has been used in to create other satellite technologies, while it produces a range of materials implemented to prototype drones by Parrot, next generation orthotics and for performance motorsport applications. The next time a satellite passes overhead, you may just wonder if it was 3D printed with Windform XT.

The company will be showcasing all of these applications at a wide range of events, including this year’s Performance Racing Industry (PRI) trade show from December 8th to the 10th, 2016. At the PRI Trade Show, CRP USA will be displaying its latest advancements for the motorsport industry with Windform additive manufacturing and high-precision CNC machining. CRP USA will be at booth #413 in Green Hall.

PRI will then be followed by International CES 2017, where CRP USA and the CRP Group will showcase products in the fields of additive manufacturing and high-performance materials. Located at booth #42909, they will be displaying state of the art Windform additively manufactured solutions as well as the Electric Superbike, Energica EVA, and one revolutionary application in the field of Ball Sports.


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