MIT scientists have created the first completely digitally manufactured plasma sensors for orbiting spacecraft. These plasma sensors, also known as retarding potential analyzers (RPAs), are used by satellites to determine the chemical composition and ion energy distribution of the atmosphere.
The 3D-printed and laser-cut hardware performed as well as state-of-the-art semiconductor plasma sensors that are manufactured in a cleanroom, which makes them expensive and requires weeks of intricate fabrication. By contrast, the 3D-printed sensors can be produced for tens of dollars in a matter of days.
Due to their low cost and speedy production, the sensors are ideal for CubeSats. These inexpensive, low-power, and lightweight satellites are often used for communication and environmental monitoring in Earth’s upper atmosphere.