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Engineering students to help develop materials for space station

Assistant Professor Todd Letcher adjusting filament machine
Assistant Mechanical Engineering Professor Todd Letcher adjusts the settings on a polymer extruder that makes filament for 3D printing. Engineering students in Letcher’s section of senior design will help develop and test new materials designed for use at the International Space Station through a NASA grant. South Dakota State University was selected as one of 10 university teams selected to work on technologies to support NASA’s deep space exploration capabilities through the eXploration Systems and Habitation Academic Innovation Challenge.

Mechanical engineering students at SDState will help develop 3D printing materials that may one day be used at the International Space Station through a one-year, $25,000 NASA grant, according to assistant professor Todd Letcher.

South Dakota State University was one of 10 university teams selected to work on technologies to support NASA’s deep space exploration capabilities. This is part of the eXploration Systems and Habitation Academic Innovation Challenge, also known as X-Hab. Other participating universities include the University of Michigan, University of Maryland and The Ohio State University.

Letcher has been working with additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, since 2014 when he bought his first printer through support from the university’s Scholarly Excellence Fund. His lab in Crothers Engineering Hall now has nearly a dozen specially modified 3D printers. He’s been integrating the design and testing of intricately designed parts, such as heat exchangers, using 3D printing in sophomore- and junior-level engineering design classes, as well as for senior design projects and graduate student research projects.

A select team of four or five senior design students will collaborate with NASA to develop and test innovative feedstock materials that can be 3D printed in space. Currently 3D printers at the space station use standard plastic materials, which do not have the required strength or fatigue life for aerospace applications. “The goal is get something approaching the strength of metal,” Letcher said.

The design team will meet regularly via videoconferencing with NASA engineers, who will help select the materials and guide their work, with input from commercial partner, Made In Space. The company specializes in gravity-independent manufacturing technologies and works on ArchinautTM, a NASA-funded project to combine robotics and additive manufacturing to make parts and assemble them in orbit.

The students will use the new materials to print specimens that will be tested at the Materials Evaluation and Testing Laboratory in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. The materials that show potential will then be used to print real-life objects, such as brackets, containers or wrenches, Letcher explained. He sees this as an opportunity to further build 3D-printing capabilities through research with Made In Space and NASA. “It’s a neat program with a lot of good ideas that will help us,” he said.

In addition, Letcher will implement the NASA systems engineering approach to project management for all of the teams in his senior capstone design class in the upcoming academic year.  That will help prepare his students for the workforce and possibly inspire them to pursue careers the aerospace industry.