NASA backs tiny 3D-printed sensors for planetary rovers

They could pave the way for human visits to Mars and the Moon.

Nanomaterials might just prove the key to the next wave of planetary rovers. NASA has poured $2 million into a Goddard Space Flight Center team developing 3D-printed sensors whose nanomaterials make them tiny, ultra-sensitive and resistant to radiation. The aim is to build a device that can detect minuscule (on the parts-per-billion-level) amounts of life-supporting chemicals like ammonia, hydrogen, methane and water.

Current sensor manufacturing methods involve building one sensor at a time and then combining them with other elements. They're relatively bulky and inefficient, and they tend to rely on mass spectrometers that have trouble spotting materials like methane and water. This new approach 3D-prints all the sensors and some of the circuitry on one substrate, and could detect those previously elusive substances.

The initiative is expected to take two years. If it works as planned, it could help future rovers find places that support (or once supported) life. They could also be used as safety systems that warn about changes to air conditions inside spacecraft and habitats. As small as this technology is, it could be vital for long-term space exploration.