With NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft set to launch in October 2024, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, CA, have been testing a full-size copy of the spacecraft to ensure it can withstand the physical stresses of launch and space travel. During this phase of the mission, engineers discovered that the spacecraft’s ‘Heat Redistribution System’ was failing. The source of the failure; The hard chromium plating on a critical permanent magnet rotor.
The ‘Heat Redistribution System’ is used to control the spacecraft’s temperature while it is exposed to the extreme temperatures of space (-455oF/-270oC). Inside that system, a ‘canned pump’, powered by a brushless DC motor, circulates coolant at a high rate. Engineers found that a small, permanent magnet rotor, inside the motor, was succumbing from tribological issues and unable to maintain the 12,000 rpm requirements to sufficiently run the system. In need of an experienced and reliable electroplating company, able to plate on a tough geometry, NASA’s JPL engineers reached out to U.S. Chrome Corporation.
U.S. Chrome had to develop a comprehensive plating process to chromium plate two geometrically discrete surface areas consisting of two shaft ODs and their adjacent thrust faces on the small magnetic rotor. The effort included establishing even current distribution over the challenging surface area by engineering specialized tooling to fit the parts vexing shape and small size. In addition, the utilization of specialty low amperage rectifiers and the development of a new method to clean the rotors to mitigate pitting in the chromium had to be implemented for the project to be successful.
At the U.S. Chrome headquarters, in Stratford, CT, NASA’s JPL engineers worked closely together with the U.S. Chrome research and development team. Their teamwork on the project allowed them to make it past every hurdle that came up, and after 2 years of dedication, the joint teams successfully developed a combination of processes to properly plate the part. Since development, U.S. Chrome has successfully plated several rounds of rotors for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft will travel for five and a half years towards Jupiter’s moon Europa. The spacecraft will perform nearly 50 close flybys, conduct a detailed survey of Jupiter’s moon Europa, and will carry an advanced suite of science instruments to determine whether the icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life.
For more information on the Europa Clipper spacecraft and mission, see https://europa.nasa.gov/.