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Students To Launch Experimental 3-D Printer On Rocket Ship
August 10, 2015

How would a 3-D printer work in the microgravity of suborbital space after surviving a jarring ride 100 miles above the earth? A group of Virginia Tech College of Engineering students hope to have an answer next week after a launch at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

Ever the Hokies, the student designed, built and tested machine will 3-D print a plastic Virginia Tech “VT” logo. In space.

The experiment will fly aboard a 900-pound NASA two-stage Terrier-Improved Malemute suborbital sounding rocket, as part of the national RockSat-X program that puts university-led experiments into suborbital space. Virginia Tech is one of seven universities to participate in the launch from Wallops Island, Virginia, set for 6 a.m. Tuesday, August 11. Backup launch dates are scheduled August 12 to 14.

The use of a 3-D printer in space is not new. A 3-D printer is on the International Space Station. But this will be the first time such a printer will be used on an unmanned rocket during flight, said Virginia Tech RockSat-X team leader Sebastian Welsh, senior in the department of computer science.

The student-led project started one year ago under the direction of Kevin Shinpaugh, an adjunct faculty member with aerospace and ocean engineering.

Shinpaugh, who has worked on several RockSat projects in the past, said this is the first experiment for launch at Wallops that has come from students rather than faculty. He added that the project falls in line with an initiative set by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, for short), to have astronauts in space build “new” satellites using “junk” parts from disused satellites, retrofitting the parts together with 3-D printed parts, versus creating entirely new spacecraft.

The team paid $24,000 to be manifested on the NASA mission, and the printer cost approximately $2,000 to build, using student-manufactured parts and off the shelf components such as belts and springs. Sponsoring the team were engineering company a.i. solutions, the Virginia Tech Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, and the Student Engineers’ Council of Virginia Tech.

Additional experiments on the Terrier-Improved Malemute rocket come from the University of Colorado, Boulder; Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho; the University of Puerto Rico; the University of Nebraska, Lincoln; Capitol Technology University of Maryland; and the University of Hawaii Community Colleges. Students from all of the universities are expected to attend the launch.

Want to watch the launch of the NASA Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket in person at Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Virginia? The launch is planned for 6 a.m. Eastern, Tuesday, August 11. Backup launch dates are August 12. The facility opens at 5 a.m. on launch day for viewing the flight, according to the agency’s website.

NASA will broadcast the event live on its UStream webpage.

Article reprinted from materials provided by Virginia Tech.

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