3D-printed telescope used on ISS

The Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics (Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare or INFN), a government funded research centre, has 3D-printed the entire mechanical structure of a first-of-its-kind cosmic UV telescope that’s currently operating from the International Space Station.

The structure of this Mini-EUSO telescope was 3D-printed in Ultem 9085 resin using a Stratasys Fortus 450mc printer

The telescope, called Mini-EUSO or Multiwavelength Imaging New Instrument for the Extreme Universe Space Observatory has been designed to explore the origin and nature of ultra-high energy cosmic UV emissions from space. Marco Ricci, who is the lead researcher at Laboratori Nazionali di Frascati INFN and the INFN Country Manager for Collaboration EUSO SPB2 Italia, explained “With an orbit of about 90 minutes, Mini-EUSO records all space and atmospheric objects and events within sight, including UV emissions from night-earth, transient luminous events, meteors, space debris and more.” He added: “The final scientific objective is to produce a high-resolution map of the Earth in the UV range (300-400 nm), which is expected to significantly advance research on cosmic rays, but also serve as an important experiment for future space missions.”

INFN, the research institute that oversaw the development of the telescope, is split into four national research centres. One of these is the Laboratori Nazionali di Frascati or LNF, which collaborates with several Italian universities as part of its research activities and also operates several Stratasys FDM 3D Printers for its production work. Tommaso Napolitano, Head of Mechanics Design and Construction Department at INFN, Laboratori Nazionali di Frascati, Rome, says that choosing the right material for the mechanical structure proved difficult, explaining: “We explored numerous ways in which we could achieve the expected performance while meeting material certification. We even built a full prototype in aluminum, one of the most commonplace materials for aerospace. But the results were far from expectation – the structure was too heavy and it did not provide the insulation required for the interior electrical currents.”

He continues: “As a result, we turned to our Fortus 450mc 3D Printer and found that the Ultem 9085 resin offered the perfect alternative. Not only is the material extremely durable, but it’s lightweight. And crucially, it also offers exceptional insulation properties, as well as high chemical and thermal resistance. It’s fair to say that without the capability to print the Mini-EUSO structure in this material, we would not have met the ISS’ safety and weight restrictions.”

Ricci concludes: “We are now in the process of analysing the first data recorded by Mini-EUSO and the results are very promising. From a researcher’s perspective, I’m extremely proud of the way the project was executed and very excited with the achievements. For me it’s clear now how 3D printing can significantly contribute towards the future success and technological progress of scientific research.”

The Mini-EUSO project has been coordinated and funded by the Italian Space Agency ASI, though it has been developed by the JEM EUSO Collaboration (Joint Experiment Missions – Extreme Universe Space Observatory), which is a wider international program that includes France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland and United States. Thanks to an ad hoc bilateral agreement between ASI and the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos, it was sent up to the ISS on a Soyuz rocket and is now sitting in an earth-facing window of the Russian Zvezda module on the ISS. 

One more thing, completely unrelated, but for those of you interested in space, it’s worth noting that the American space agency NASA is planning to launch a SpaceX Crew Dragon space ship on top of a Falcon rocket complete with two astronauts. It’s a significant moment in the history of space exploration as this will be the first time a private company rather than a government agency has put humans into space, assuming the weather over Florida holds.

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