The proper functioning of moving parts within a satellite, such as mechanisms used within payloads or to deploy solar arrays, is essential to keep it alive and healthy. A novel method of monitoring such parts is now being investigated: the direct printing of strain gauges, wires and connectors onto flexible mechanism elements – like nerves along someone’s joints.
“Our project investigated the design, manufacture and testing of Additive Manufactured flexible mechanism elements incorporating aerosol-jet-printed sensors, to be employed for position monitoring and potentially also to check on the mechanism’s health,” explains ESA mechanisms engineer Joseph Smith, overseeing the project.
“The end to end printing of functional flexible elements, insulation and sensors also provides a reassuring demonstration of key steps which would be necessary to produce entirely printed complex compliant mechanisms.”
The flexible elements and sensor printing technology comes from Swiss research organisation CSEM, prime contractor in this ESA Technology Development Element project. Testing showed the printed sensors made fast and reliable measurements, with follow-on work aiming to focus on the connection quality between the pads and their associated wiring.
Meanwhile CSEM is now also working on developing a 3D-printed heat pipe – used as a satellite cooling system – incorporating similar sensors for heating and temperature monitoring, which is being supported through the EU-Attract project, part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme.