NASA Satellite Will Carry Unique 3D-Printed Component

ICESat-2 employs part made from novel 3D printing material.

The 3D-printed PEKK bracket is visible in the back of the ATLAS instrument.

The 3D-printed PEKK bracket is visible in the back of the ATLAS instrument. (Image courtesy of NASA.)

The Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) will launch with a 3D-printed part made from polyetherketoneketone (PEKK)—a material which has never been flown in space.


The part is a bracket supporting fiber-optic cables for the NASA satellite’s only instrument, the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS). Like its predecessor, ICESat-2 will measure changes in ice-sheet elevations, sea-ice thicknesses and global vegetation via photon counting. This process records the time-of-flight of individual photons as they reflect off the Earth’s surface.

ICESat employed a single laser to measure changes in elevation, which was problematic because the researchers using it couldn’t tell if the snowpack had melted or if the laser was slightly off and pointed down a hill. ICESat-2 avoids this problem by splitting the green-light laser into six beams arranged in pairs, firing continuously at 10,000 pulses-per-second toward Earth.

Sending 3D-Printed Parts to Space

The instrument’s developers chose PEKK partly for its strength, but primarily because it is electrostatically dissipative, i.e., it reduces the build-up of static electricity, thereby protecting electrostatically sensitive devices.

In addition, PEKK produces very little outgassing. In a vacuum or under heated conditions, outgassed contaminants can condense on optical devices and thermal radiators, significantly degrading instrument performance.

“Had we manufactured this part classically, it would have taken six to eight weeks. We got it in two days,” said Oren Sheinman, the ATLAS mechanical systems engineer. Sheinman added that the project’s costs were up to four times less than with a traditionally machined part.

Although it may not be as exciting as a 3D-printed jet engine, this is only the second 3D-printed part to be flown in a spaceflight instrument. The first was 3D-printed from Ultem 9085 and flown on the ISS as part of NASA’s Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) program.

ICESat-2 is scheduled for launch in 2018.

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