For Lockheed Martin, tackling complex challenges, pushing the limits of scientific exploration, and devising solutions are all part of its DNA. So, it is no surprise that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) selected an elite team of scientists and engineers from Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center (ATC) to create a design for a new, futuristic space telescope.
Because of traditional optical systems, today’s space telescopes are heavy, expensive, and bulky. In line with the project’s requirements, DARPA’s version would have to be lighter and less expensive to send into space. It would also have to be adaptable and even more powerful. As the ATC team soon discovered, the fundamental principles of telescope design would need to be reconceived.
The ATC needed to create a new, vastly condensed optical technology to tackle the challenge. It also needed a cost-effective and fast means of creating prototypes that would help the team understand how to implement this technology. With the use of researchers at the University of California at Davis, the ATC co-developed SPIDER, or the Segmented Planar Imaging Detector for Electro-optical Reconnaissance. And with the use of MakerBot’s solutions, the team rapidly and easily iterated on designs for prototypes.
To redesign the telescope from the ground up, the ATC chose a relatively new technique for collecting light, known as interferometry. In the world of optics, this technique uses many tiny lenses to collect photons which are then processed via microchips to create a high-resolution image.
Partnering with experts at UC Davis, the ATC co-developed a special silicon chip to channel light fed from tiny lenses. ATC’s new system could reduce the size, weight, and power needed for optics by 10 to 100 times while offering similar resolution. As an array, SPIDER is cheaper, faster to produce, and lighter than the optics in traditional telescopes, making the technology easier to send into space.
The SPIDER imaging technology can be fitted to any number of flat shapes; however, the best arrangement for a particular purpose will depend on the context of the application, the object or vehicle it’s mounted on, and tradeoffs between spaceflight efficiency and light collection. To explore and test these concepts, ATC engineers designed different SPIDER arrays in Solidworks, then prototyped them to further refine and iterate on their models.
MakerBot’s professional solutions have allowed Guy Chriqui, Senior Research Engineer at the ATC, and Sutyen Zalawadia, Mechatronics Engineer, to quickly accelerate the iterative design process and cost-effectively prototype for SPIDER on their own. Outsourcing any of this work just wasn’t an option, as Chriqui explained: “We would get quotes in the thousands of dollars with an eight-week lead time for just one version of a model — I can’t imagine what 14 versions would cost.”
Chriqui and his team also have a cutting-edge machine shop in-house, but the MakerBot 3D printers nearby allow the SPIDER team to iterate new versions in only hours. Plus, since the ATC has many sensitive projects, outsourcing work to contractors would not just slow down projects and increase costs; it would also require approvals and paperwork that could be avoided by turning to a MakerBot a few feet away.
By accelerating the design process, these Desktop 3D printers have bolstered scientific experiments, enabling more tests, more insights, and more potential breakthroughs in a shorter period. Moving more quickly from ideation to iteration and refinement gives engineers a significant competitive advantage, helping deliver better solutions faster to clients.
The ATC used the Replicator 2 and 2X to prototype parts and tooling for the James Webb Space Telescope back in 2013. They have since updated with the Replicator (5th Gen), Mini, Z18, and now the Replicator+ and Replicator Mini+.
Beyond prototyping SPIDER arrays, the team’s Replicator Mini is also a practical field 3D printer for when the engineers travel to different testing facilities. “When we test smaller rockets, the nose cones blow off and are mostly unrecoverable, so we bring the Mini to the launch site and print different nose cones on the spot,” Zalawadia said.
MakerBot’s filament has also proved beneficial. With new materials like Tough PLA, ATC’s engineers can make entirely new products and applications possible, such as high-quality snapping joints Chriqui calls flextures. Whereas these flexible hinges and joints would typically fail when printed as PLA, they function well with Tough PLA, allowing the team to print prototypes that are closer to the final product. In testing the SPIDER technology, the team also found that MakerBot True Black PLA at 100% infill is perfect for absorbing light. Good light absorption is important so that no light leakage can affect optical tests. They also use neon PLA filament to highlight specific parts of a print.
When Chriqui and Zalawadia had the opportunity to test the Print platform, they appreciated its added efficiency, especially for assisting coworkers with ad hoc 3D printing requests. The Auto Arrange and multi-printer control features were used for setting up different projects on multiple build plates and sending them to other printers.
When the team’s experiments required a custom tool that couldn’t be bought off the shelf, they were able to design it themselves and print 14 different iterations in a single day. “Some little tools that were printed over a year ago are still in use in the lab,” Zalawadia remarks.
With these printers — the only FDM printers at the ATC— the team has sped up its product development cycle. Even though the ATC has access to industry-leading machine shops and advanced manufacturing technology, MakerBot’s professional solutions add distinct advantages to the ATC’s workflow that the Center’s other resources can’t.
With the breakthroughs achieved at the ATC, the SPIDER team can continue its mission to engineer lighter, more powerful, and much cheaper telescopes that could one day travel farther, explore distant planets at high resolution, and look deeper into the endless depths of space.
Filed Under: Make Parts Fast