Slated for launch in 2018, NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) will carry a 3D-printed part made of polyetherketoneketone (PEKK), a material that has never been used in additive manufacturing, let alone flown in space.

This image shows the ATLAS instrument inside a Goddard cleanroom where the instrument was assembled.
Credits: NASA/D. McCallum

The part is a bracket that supports the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS) instrument’s fiber-optic cables. The ICESAT mission will use ATLAS to determine topography of ice sheets and the thickness of sea ice. The PEKK material reduces the build-up of static electricity to protect electrostatically sensitive devices.

Although 3D manufacturing is used to create a variety of products, it remains a rare occurrence in spaceflight applications. In fact, the PEKK bracket is believed to be only the second 3D-manufactured part to be flown in a spaceflight instrument, said Oren Sheinman, the ATLAS mechanical systems engineer NASA Goddard.

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

As with its predecessor, ICESat-2 is designed to measure changes in ice-sheet elevations in Greenland and the Antarctic, sea-ice thicknesses, and global vegetation.


Also: Learn how NASA uses additive manufacturing to make turbofan engines.