Proto Labs, Inc.
Maple Plain, MN

University student Mel Du was searching for a source to manufacture metal parts for a student research challenge project he was working on for NASA. The project centered on designing, building, and testing an asteroid-sample retrieval and containment device for a simulated space mission. As part of the development stage, the team at San Antonio, TX-based Trinity University produced several prototypes on the school’s in-house, production-model, fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printer.

At NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Trinity University student Mel Du (left) works with NASA astronaut Stanley Love, who is holding the SHARC tool that features Proto Labs parts.

While the 3D-printed parts were suitable for prototyping, the plastic (ABS) parts would not be strong enough for actual use in space. That use would also include NASA’s testing of the team’s device, which they dubbed the SHARC — Sampling Hardware for Asteroid Retrieval and Containment. The testing would eventually occur in the simulated microgravity environment of the Neutral Buoyancy Lab giant swimming pool at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The research project is part of NASA’s Microgravity University and its MicroG NEXT Program.

With the limitations of FDM, Du turned to Proto Labs. He knew of Proto Labs’ capabilities in CNC machining and other manufacturing processes after becoming familiar with the company’s Cool Idea! Award, which provides prototyping and low-volume production services to entrepreneurs and others developing new products in the United States and Europe.

“We had been in a rapid prototyping mode, using a 3D printer,” Du said. “We tested several different designs, several iterations, but once we came up with our final design, we knew we needed something for doing the real testing that was more durable than the plastic prototype parts.”

Proto Labs fabricated several SLS and machined parts for the SHARC tool, including this retention pin cover.

The SHARC is not an automated retriever, but essentially a hand tool — something astronauts could use while wearing their gloved spacesuits. The astronauts, for the simulated space-walk asteroid mission, would use and maneuver the SHARC device to dig into an asteroid, grab surface samples, and then seal off those samples to prevent the risk of contamination. In a real mission in space, those samples would be kept for eventual analysis back on Earth. The SHARC, and the parts that make up the device, had to be of sufficient strength and integrity to work in this high-stress environment.

Proto Labs helped the Trinity University team advance the SHARC device development with machined aluminum parts along with commercial-grade, additively manufactured, glass-filled nylon parts with selective laser sintering (SLS). The machined parts were several retention pins and retention pin covers; the SLS parts included a left and right arm for the device, a slide, a plate, and a hand guard with a tether loop.

The Trinity University students traveled to Houston to lead the testing at Johnson Space Center, which included working with astronauts and others at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, and directing their activities in the pool as part of the test. The device worked well throughout all of the testing. Additionally, though the asteroid mission for now is a simulated one, the intent of the research project is that NASA may eventually operationalize the SHARC tool for future space missions.

Trinesha Dixon, program manager and education specialist for NASA’s Microgravity University, explained that these projects are opportunities for NASA to engage universities in “what we’re doing at NASA and with our missions,” and, at the same time, expose students to hands-on engineering design and test operations. “The students are making a direct contribution to NASA’s overall mission. They are contributing to the advancement of space exploration.”

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NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the July, 2016 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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