Skip to main content
South Dakota’s Role in Space Exploration
Email share

After 12 months on the International Space Station, (ISS), American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korneinko are about to come home. A Year in Space premieres Thursday, March 3, 7pm (6 MT) on SDPB2 and is timed within a day of Kelly’s planned return to Earth. It chronicles Kelly’s one-year mission – right up through his planned descent and landing. The longest space stay in history has tested human limits for space travel and is laying the groundwork for a manned mission to Mars. 

Back on Earth, South Dakota scientists are also contributing to the possibility of future planetary exploration.

NASA has awarded the South Dakota NASA EPSCoR program a $750,000 grant to develop “printable spacecraft” for future space exploration missions. The project is a collaboration of researchers from South Dakota School of Mines & Technology (SDSM&T), the University of South Dakota, and South Dakota State University. The scientists are partnering with the NASA Glenn Research Center, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and industry partners Optomec, Inc., and Quest Integrated.

Dr. Dimitris Anagnostou, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at SDSM&T is the project’s technical lead. 

SDPB: As the technical lead for the printable spacecraft project, can you explain to readers briefly what your role in the project entails?

Dimitris Anagnostou: As a technical lead, I manage the scientific/technical development progress of the project. This is a very large project that involves 10 professors in total from five different departments from three South Dakota institutions (specifically: Grant Crawford, William Cross, Lori Groven, Jon Kellar, Keith Whites and Dimitris Anagnostou from SDSM&T; Mary Berry and P. Stan May from USD, and Robert McTaggart and Qiquan Qiao from SDSU), as well as staff and many student researchers that are carrying out the heaviest portion of the workload. We are fortunate to have formed a team of talented, supportive and hard-working individuals from the entire State of South Dakota. 

SDPB: Can you define the term “spacecraft” in this project?

DA: The “spacecraft” in our project are not designed to carry people, and do not have high speed propulsive rocket engines. We are working on smaller scale “printable spacecraft” that can be deployed from space. The term “printable spacecraft” was first proposed by Kendra Short (PI and NIAC Fellow) and Dave Van Buren, of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for use in NASA space exploration missions. 

By “printable spacecraft”, NASA envisions thin, lightweight, flexible substrate sheets with embedded customized sensors and electronic modules for data gathering, communication, and micro-propulsion. These thin sheets will be made of thin substrates (e.g. Kapton®, polymers, or even paper), and the various electronic components and devices will be embedded on the sheets using a materials printer. The printing could occur in the lab prior to launch, or on demand during a mission (e.g. in space) using an in-situ printer. The printed spacecraft will then be deployed above a target world to gather data, and flutter to its surface like leaves eliminating the need for complex landing systems. Upon reaching their destination, the spacecraft will act as a large wireless network of sensors that transmits all collected data back to the host spacecraft for further processing and/or transmission to Earth. 

SDPB: You are partnering with NASA and industry partners (Optomec, Inc. & Quest Integrated) to “develop the necessary research base that will enable printable spacecraft to become a reality.” First, what do the three partnering organizations contribute to the project? Second, what aspects of the research project are taking place in South Dakota?

DA: There are two NASA centers that have partnered with us in our project: the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the NASA Glenn Research Center as they found our research to be in direct alignment with their efforts in developing the technology that will enable humanity to reach inaccessible areas, and this can be enabled by addressing the issues that may one day allow direct-write technology toprint spacecraft. 

Ms. Kendra Short from NASA JPL and Dr. George Ponchak from NASA GRC (Smart Sensors and Electronics Systems Branch) act as technical monitors for our project and will help us maintain alignment between our research efforts and JPL and GRC needs. JPL will host our students who will develop there perovskite photovoltaic cells during the summers, and will provide us with materials and devices that we will test for radiation effects with γ-rays (gamma rays) and neutrons. Both NASA technical monitors will also foster collaborations between our team and NASA researchers or industry partners who could benefit from our results, such (e.g. Xerox PARC and Boeing).

Optomec Inc. is a leader in additive manufacturing solutions and offers technical advice and guidance in helping us achieve good printing results to print successfully the materials and nanoinks that we are developing in-house. Our research will also assist Optomec to further develop higher quality direct-write printers for applications in the solar, electronics, biomedical, and aerospace & defense markets. 

Quest Integrated, LLC (Qi2), offers technical advice and guidance to help us achieve a number of functional printable structures (e.g. sensors, gauges, heaters and antennas) utilizing our materials and nanoinks. 

As it is obvious from the above, the great majority of the research is taking place in South Dakota. 

SDPB: The Project Summary indicates the “substrate sheets … when deployed flutter like falling leaves to a target surface...collecting data through their journey.” First, can you explain “substrate” for non-scientists? Second, how do the electronic components and devices collect data? Third, what kind of data will be collected? Fourth, what questions do the data answer and how will the data be used?

DA: In simple terms, “substrate” is a thin layer of a material, typically an insulating material (such as a layer of plastic, polyimide, fiber glass, or even paper). A simple analogy would be the paper on which a home inkjet printer is printing ink. The substrate is the paper and what we are doing is a printing electronic components (i.e. sensors, electronic modules, micro-propulsion modules and photovoltaic cells), instead of the letters and images that everybody is familiar with. More tech savvy oriented people could relate the substrate to the motherboard of a computer that is the nervous system of our PCs and holds together all the main components (i.e. the processor, the memory, chips, etc). 

NASA envisions that the printable spacecraft will be very useful in the exploration of planets, as well as volcanoes and other hard-to-reach surfaces. Since planets can be very different, the type of sensors depends upon the type of data that NASA is interested to collect during a particular mission. As an example, chemical and gas sensors can be used for hydrocarbon detection, atmospheric monitoring and scientific information gathering. Then, the measured gas levels of the sensor can be collected by the electronics of the spacecraft and transmitted to a more powerful spacecraft that can be orbiting around the planet using the spacecraft’s printed antenna. When all data has been collected, it can be relayed back to Earth. 

As researchers, we are mainly interested in answering questions regarding the capabilities of the printing technology. What can we achieve using the printing technology? What type of sensors can we print? How accurate can these sensors be? What are the limitations in printing and in device performance? Can we print efficient photovoltaic cells to power the electronics of the spacecraft? Can we print a micropropulsion mechanism that would allow basic steering towards a specific area? Answers to these questions will provide NASA with the necessary information regarding the technology state-space and will help NASA decide on future steps and set an appropriate time-frame. 

Image - STANLE Flutter Landers.png

SDPB:  Can you describe, from start-to-finish, a scenario in which the printable spacecraft are deployed? First, how large are they? How many are deployed and how? Are they recollected or do they remain on the surface of the planet to which they’ve been deployed? What is their lifespan, i.e., how long will they be useful for collecting data?  Where and how does the data collection take place?

DA: The printable spacecraft are envisioned to be roughly 10” x 10” (100 square inches) surface area. NASA, in order to establish the requirements for the engineering design of the printable spacecraft, came up with a reference mission scenario where they defined a Mars environmental meteorological network. This reference mission was named STANLE (acronym for Structure of the Atmosphere - Network Lander Experiment) and provided a basis for comparison with a traditional mission against key metrics to determine the requirements of the point design of the prototype printed spacecraft fabrication.

The mission would consist of thousands of small sheets of printed electronic science stations (meteorological stations) which would flutter to the surface of Mars after being released from their entry vehicle. For the release, a traditional cruise stage and entry system would be used which releases the printed electronic platforms into the atmosphere after heatshield separation, allowing them to flutter to the surface and begin their mission. The printable spacecraft would cover an area of hundreds of square kilometers to support the measurement of moderate scale atmospheric phenomena.

With an intended lifetime of one Martian year, the science stations would measure valuable environmental parameters during diurnal and annual cycles. These parameters would include temperature, pressure, wind speed, atmospheric opacity, radiation, and humidity once every hour. This reference mission also provided a focused set of environmental requirements to evaluate compatibility of materials and components in the environmental test program. The reference mission defined the end state of functionality and readiness. The printing could be done on Earth or during the space flight, and in case the flight continues to different planets, new printable spacecraft can be printed, with new sensors, depending on the next planet’s atmospheric characteristics.

SDPB: You’ve said “the printable spacecraft will be able to go everywhere, even in areas where humans cannot such as inside a volcanic crater.” How do you conduct testing of the printable spacecraft in this and other ‘harsh space environments”?

DA: Indeed, a portion of our research is dedicated to the evaluation of the stability of printed components under space conditions, where we will study the stability of printed components under thermal cycling, vacuum conditions, and radiation (γ-ray testing). All this testing including the thermal cycling will be made using our facilities at SDSM&T. For example the high temperatures of a volcanic crater can be approached by specialized thermal chambers. These tests will help us gain a fundamental understanding of the relationship between processing, microstructure, and resulting mechanical and electrical performance. This understanding is critical for future design and materials selection of printed materials for space applications. If successful, NASA can continue the testing outside of the laboratory in more realistic environments.

SDPB: Why is this research taking place in South Dakota? What are SDSMT, SDSU and USD able to offer the project?

DA: South Dakota, and particularly the Direct-Write laboratory at SDSM&T has singular resources in printing capability and extensive experience, that give us the highest capability for success in this work. We have been working in this technology for more than 10 years, with many faculties, and have developed in-house materials and nanoinks to print that make South Dakota one of the leading universities in printing simple devices such as sensors, antennas, photovoltaic cells and micro-propellant energetic powders. Also, the State of South Dakota has invested heavily in this technology over the past decade, and the fruits of all this effort are now becoming evident. 

SDPB: In turn, what tangible benefits does the South Dakotan science community receive from the research project? 

DA: In a nutshell, new collaborations, new projects, student training, publications, new equipment, outreach activities, and economic development. The research also supports key priority areas of the South Dakota “2020 Vision” Science and Technology plan and the economic development of the State.

More specifically, our project brings together theoretical and applied research, and provides applications to significant fundamental science that has been conducted in South Dakota during the past decade. Also, it fosters new collaborations through increased networking among the partners, particularly between South Dakota and NASA. In addition, it provides opportunities for enhanced professional development for all involved partners, and especially students who will have the opportunity to interact with NASA scientists and engineers. Results are expected to help establish South Dakota further as one of the leaders in the burgeoning area of digital manufacturing scientific community through publications and patents, and can lead to new collaborations and new projects of interest to other agencies, such as for example the Department of Defense. 

A research grade three-dimensional profilometer will be purchased and will significantly enhance the research enterprise associated with this effort. This equipment will enable our team to accurately measure printed traces, and will serve the entire scientific community of the State of South Dakota.

In addition, we have planned outreach activities to engage K-12 students, particularly those from underrepresented groups, familiarize them with our project and increase their interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Those particularly interested will also be encouraged to pursue careers in these areas. A workshop on electronic materials will be organized, and school visits (e.g. from nearby Reservations) will be planned. We will also deliver summer mini-courses through the SD GEAR-UP summer program to provide students opportunities to learn about exciting NASA-related topics. 

This research will enhance multi-level education in chemistry, materials, physics and electrical engineering, for undergraduate and graduate students. The research will also support six (6) research assistants per year.

SDPB:  Does the average U.S. citizen come in contact with Printed Electronics in daily life? Are there examples of applications of printed electronics that you can point to that help us make the leap from understanding printed electronics to printable spacecraft? For example, can similarities be drawn between printable spacecraft and, say, RFID tags or smart textiles?

There are many U.S. who come in contact with printed electronics practically every day. For example, RFID tags are used as tickets in the Atlanta MARTA (e.g. BREEZE card), and are also used as simple and low-cost tracking devices for books and other products. All these passive tags have been enabled using additive manufacturing. 

There are other examples of everyday printed electronics that are more sophisticated, including on cameras with flexible circuitry, cellular phones with flexible displays, etc. 

Printable electronics have advanced significantly during the last decade but all efforts targeted terrestrial applications. This is the first effort (outside of NASA) that is investigating the capabilities of the printable electronics technology for space applications, and that will also study printable micro-propulsion. There are not many similarities to passive RFIDs, as the printable spacecraft will have to radiate when sufficient data has been collected, and not when interrogated. However, if one could imagine an RFID tag being about 10 times larger, having a steering wheel and an acceleration pedal, a ‘nose’ to smell or sense, having an energy source, and being able to radiate with its printed antenna, then this is quite close to what the printable spacecraft that NASA envisions will be able to achieve in space. 

SDPB: Can you theorize how printable spacecraft will have applications back on Earth?

There may be direct applications, for example in the exploration of hard to reach surfaces such as volcanic craters, as well as indirect as they will enable a better understanding of planetary phenomena which could help us answer important scientific questions and enable the creation of reliable human environments and habitats for space and planet colonization. The latter is actually one of the grand challenges of NASA. 

SDPB: Does a proposed timeline exist for this to become a reality? In other words, when and where could we first see your research being launched?

DA: Although NASA is very interested in the printed electronics technology, as of today there is no official “printed spacecraft” mission planned for any program (planetary, mars, astrophysics) as the technology is still under heavy development. Each activity of our research is specifically focused on a key area, all of which contribute synergistically to reaching the goal of an implementable printable spacecraft. However it is still quite early to talk about a timeline for printable spacecraft to be used on a mission. As a reference, NASA has envisioned the STANLE mission (as mentioned in Question #5) that helped establish requirements for the engineering design of printable spacecraft. The roadmap timeline for the STANLE mission was to reach the goal of an implementable mission by 2024. 

SDPB: What else do you think would be helpful for us to understand or appreciate about the project?

DA: Whoever would like more information is very welcome to contact me or anyone else from our team. 


American Experience: Space Men. SDPB1: Tuesday, Mar. 1, 8pm (7 MT). In the 1950s and early '60s, a small band of high-altitude pioneers exposed themselves to the extreme forces of the space age long before NASA's acclaimed Mercury 7 would make headlines.

NOVA: First Man on the Moon. SDPB1: Wednesday, Mar. 2, 8pm (7 MT). Modest and unassuming , Neil Armstrong was determined to stay out of the spotlight, but almost everyone knows he was the first to set foot on the moon. For the first time, NOVA presents an intimate portrait of Armstrong through interviews with family and friends, many of whom have never spoken publicly before.

Makers: Women in Space. SDPB1: Friday, Mar. 11, 8pm (7 MT). The history of women pioneers in the U.S. space program. Some passed the same grueling tests as male astronauts, only to be dismissed by NASA, the military, and even Lyndon Johnson.

NOVA: Ancient Computer. SDPB2: Thursday, Mar. 17, 11pm (10 MT). A Greek shipwreck holds the remains of an intricate bronze machine that turns out to be the world's first computer.

Particle Fever. SDPB2: Thursday, Mar. 17, Midnight (11pm MT) & Friday, Mar. 18, 8am (7 MT). Captures
The thrill of discovery, as well as the stress, disappointment and fear researchers felt when the Large Hadron Collider went offline for months.

NOVA: The Great Math Mystery. SDPB1: Wednesday, Mar. 30, 8pm (7 MT). Provocative exploration of math's astonishing power across the centuries.
TED Talks: Science & Wonder. SDPB1: Wednesday, Mar. 30, 9pm (8 MT). Examine the riddles of the universe that keep leading scientists awake at night.

View many more programs and resources at NOVA’s Space + Flight website.