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Shape memory alloy release mechanisms and hinges deploy solar arrays on CubeSat

January 09, 2019
Source: ASM International

NASA Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, announces that the new ALBus CubeSat, launched in December, will test high-power (100 watt) electric systems and unique shape-memory alloy components for the first time. ALBus (Advanced Electrical Bus) includes a custom-built shape memory alloy release mechanism and hinges to deploy solar arrays and conduct electricity.

CubeSats are very small, lightweight satellites, about the size of a loaf of bread, and typically operate within a power range of 5 to 20 watts. Lower-power systems are typically used in CubeSats because of size and weight limits, while higher power systems and components cause excessive heat.

If ALBus successfully validates its 100-watt power system, it could open up future opportunities for different advanced CubeSat missions requiring high power, while adding functions such as electric propulsion and advanced communications systems to these small satellites.

ALBus will collect energy from solar arrays and store it in batteries as it conducts multiple tests of its 100-watt power system. On ALBus, all four solar arrays will be deployed by a single retention and release mechanism made of a resettable shape-memory alloy (NiTiPtPd). This is unique because, unlike other CubeSats, its arrays can unfurl at the same time. Shape memory alloys have flown on several high-profile missions, such as the Parker Solar Probe. The ALBus project expands SMA capabilities by creating new, more dynamic materials that could enable future missions.

"We developed advanced shape memory alloys that can function at high temperatures and perform in a stable and repeatable manner," says Materials Research Engineer Othmane Benafan.

Another special characteristic of the SMA components is that each solar array hinge will transfer electrical power from the respective array to the ALBus power management system. This feature decreases the total number of parts needed, reducing weight and minimizing risk.

"This is done by conducting electricity generated by the solar arrays through the superelastic springs in the hinges," says Dr. Benafan. "This is a novel use of superelastic SMAs, particularly in CubeSats where space and weight come at a premium."

Unlike deployment systems for other CubeSats that can move only once, the SMA components are also capable of resetting multiple times. This allows for greater design flexibility, additional pre-flight testing, and the ability to make last minute changes, which could improve future mission success rates.

"This is the first for us as we've been able to develop a resettable, reusable mechanism enabled by shape memory alloys," says Mechanical Engineer Allen Guzik. "This allowed us to ground test these parts several times to ensure everything worked before installing it on ALBus. This capability should significantly reduce component failure risk on CubeSats in the future."  

Subject Classifications

Industries and Applications | Aerospace and Defense

Industries and Applications | Electronics

Materials Properties and Performance | Mechanical Properties

Materials Properties and Performance | Physical Properties

Materials Properties and Performance | Thermal Properties

Metals and Alloys | Precious Metals

Metals and Alloys | Shape Memory Alloys

Metals and Alloys | Superalloys, Nickel, and Cobalt

Metals and Alloys | Titanium

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