NASA Ames focusing on advanced manufacturing

May 24, 2013 6:02:48 PM PDT
NASA's Ames Research Center near Mountain View is reinventing itself as a result of tight federal funding, but it's turning a potential negative into positives as it focuses on advancing its manufacturing skills.

Developing advanced manufacturing skills has become a key way NASA is stretching a budget that has stayed at $16.8 billion two years in a row. Last month, it pioneered the use of consumer-grade mobile phones as small satellites in space. And in workshops at NASA Ames, it's learning how to etch circuit boards in-house instead of sending them to outside contractors.

It's also faster. "You can come in here in an afternoon and have an idea for a circuit board, sketch it out, prototype it, and then put it on this machine over here, and have a finished board in your hand in a couple of hours," explained researcher Zac Manchester.

Researchers took the agency's administrator, former astronaut Charles Bolden, and South Bay Congressman Mike Honda, on a tour Friday of its advanced 3D printing lab. They make parts and components for space missions from droplets of plastic.

"As you're melting the plastic, you can either choose to melt a lot of plastic at one time or you can choose to melt a little at a time. So, if you're melting less at a time, you're potentially achieving more accuracy," explained NASA technology fellow Sarah Hovsepian .

They made the battery holders, for example, to power the three cell phone satellites. But as they experiment with other materials, they'll be able to print circuit boards by using conductive plastic. For now, they're using a lot of abs plastic in 3D printing. But in the future, they're going to be using a lot of alloys, including ones made of aluminum and titanium.

The next step is putting 3D printers in space. "Whether redirecting an asteroid or sending humans to mars, we'll need transformative technology to reduce cargo weight and volume. In the future, perhaps astronauts will be able to print the tools or components they need while in space," NASA administrator Charles Bolden said.

Because of the work it's doing, Bolden says Ames Research Center and its team of 2,300 have a long-term and mission-critical future. However, the sequester and tight budgets remain a threat.


Load Comments