Plastic-molded components are currently speeding through space towards Jupiter aboard NASA’s Juno Space Probe.
The Juno Spacecrat launched August 5, 2011 and is expected to begin orbiting the planet in early July, 2016.
The plastic components are part of the JADE (Jovian Auroral Distributions Experiment) device. The JADE sensors are designed to measure and identify electron and ion particles, along Jupiter’s magnetic fields, that create the planet’s jovian auroral displays. JADE was developed for the Juno mission by the Southwest Research Institute® (SwRI®) in San Antonio. JADE is one of 29 instruments aboard the Juno spacecraft.
“Southwest Research Institute approached us to produce the plastic components because of our expertise with high-performance thermoplastics and our willingness to produce high-precision, small-quantity parts,” says Annette Lund, vice president, Diversified Plastics. “The customer’s specifications included using polyether ether ketone (PEEK) and we have experience molding this thermoplastic material for our medical device customers. Additionally, we have had prior aerospace experience molding plastic components made of Torlon for NASA’s Space Shuttle program.”
PEEK is used for very demanding applications and in harsh environments. This high-performance material provides very good dimensional stability, high strength, low weight, excellent resistance to high-energy radiation and can withstand the extreme variations in temperature found in space travel. PEEK is an expensive material and is difficult to mold, requiring to be heated to very high temperatures during the molding process.
Diversified Plastics produced two, short-run orders for SwRI — one for testing and one for final production components. “Production for the JADE device was unique,” Lund states. “We made three different components, with two of them using metal inserts. One part required molding PEEK around an aluminum ring and the second part needed multiple aluminum inserts machined first, then press-fit into the molded plastic. We were able to perform all the operations in house, saving our customer time and money.”