J. VanDomelen Mil/Aero Blog

J. VanDomelen holds a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems and myriad certifications from Microsoft, Cisco, and CompTia in varying facets of computer software, hardware, and network design and implementation. He has worked in the electronics industry for more than 12 years in varied fields, including advanced systems design of highly technical military and aerospace computer systems, semiconductor manufacturing, open source software development, hardware design, and rapid prototyping.

31 December, 2014

Military and aerospace (mil/aero) engineers and executives know all too well the (very long) time it takes to see a new technology designed, developed, tested, manufactured, and fielded.

Long acquisition cycles have long plagued the mil/aero community—in some cases, leaving soldiers and astronauts waiting egregiously long for much-needed solutions. Times are changing, however, and new tools, systems, and components just might be delivered to awaiting mil/aero personnel sooner rather than later. After all, NASA and its contractor were able to deliver a tool to the International Space Station (ISS) in just one week’s time—a major mil/aero achievement and an historic first.

It can take months or even years, depending on the launch resupply schedule, to get equipment to space, and for exploration missions, resupply from Earth may be impossible, NASA officials explain. Yet, additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing) may change not only how NASA completes exploration missions, but also the way science is conducted on the ISS, they say.

In just one week, California-based contractor Made in Space Inc. designed a 3D model of a ratchet wrench and delivered it to NASA engineers, who performed safety qualification testing. Once the design was finalized, the ground station print of the ratchet was sent to NASA authorities for a safety qualification. After qualification, the file for the ratchet was emailed (also called uplinked, or uploaded via a link between the ISS and NASA on the ground) to the ISS laptop connected to the Zero-G Printer. Made In Space engineers confirmed that the file was uploaded correctly and sent the command to initiate the print.


“This wrench will not be used in space, but what if it were a tool the crew needed?” ponders Niki Werkheiser, space station 3D printer program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. “We are breaking new ground not only in the way we manufacture in space but also in the way we operate and approve space hardware that is built in space, rather than launched from Earth.

“If you can transmit a file to the station as quickly as you can send an email, it opens up endless possibilities for all the types of things that you can make from CubeSat components to experiment hardware,” Werkheiser adds. “We even may be able to make objects that previously couldn’t even be launched to space.”

The 3D-printed ratchet wrench will be delivered to Earth for analysis and testing, along with the other parts printed at the ISS. Great work this year, mil/aero community. Here’s to an innovative new year!

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31 December, 2014

Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) completed the first phase of a NASA technology demonstration by printing a tool (a ratchet wrench) with a design file transmitted from the ground to the Zero-G 3D printer in space.

“For the printer’s final test in this phase of operations, NASA wanted to validate the process for printing on demand, which will be critical on longer journeys to Mars,” says Niki Werkheiser, manager of the space station 3D printer program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. “In less than a week, the ratchet was designed, approved by safety and other NASA reviewers, and the file was sent to space where the printer made the wrench in four hours.”

The Zero-G 3D printer built the wrench by depositing 104 layers of plastic, a process called additive manufacturing.


The 4.48-inch-long by 1.29-inch-wide wrench was designed by Noah Paul-Gin, an engineer at Made In Space Inc., a northern California company that NASA contracted to design, build, and operate the printer. Paul-Gin digitally crafted a 3D model of the tool using Autodesk Inventor, a popular 3D computer-aided design (CAD) software used in product simulation, 3D mechanical design, tooling creation, design communication, and engineer-to-order applications.

This is the first time a design file has been sent from the ground to make a tool, a NASA spokesperson explains. The entire process – from tool design through qualification testing and printing – was accomplished in just one week. Military and aerospace (mil/aero) geeks everywhere recognize that achieving this feat in such a small window of time is very rare.

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30 December, 2014

One of the hottest trends to hit the military and aerospace (mil/aero) market is additive manufacturing, which is more widely known as three-dimensional (3D) printing. This year, in fact, NASA hit a new milestone with 3D printing.

Mil/aero systems, applications, and end users are benefitting more and more from the adoption of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) systems and components, especially from the fast-paced world of entertainment—an industry vertical that has employed 3D printing for years and years.

Additive manufacturing is now harnessed by various industries, from automotive to healthcare, and now mil/aero. In fact, TechRepublic editor Lyndsey Gilpin predicts: “As it evolves, 3D printing technology is destined to transform almost every major industry and change the way we live, work, and play in the future.” (Read more at  techrepublic.com.)

The size of the global market, including 3D printer sales, materials, and associated services, is predicted to reach $16.2 billion by 2018 from $3.8 billion in 2014, according to independent research company Canalys. Analysts forecast the 3D printing market will grow by more than 500 percent with a year-over-year growth rate of 45.7 percent over the next five years.

made in space

Engineers, scientists, and executives at NASA have certainly embraced the disruptive technology—and they’ve achieved historic firsts in the process.

The International Space Station (ISS), for the first time in history, gained use of an onboard 3D printer (read about the first 3D printer in space in my previous blog posts). Astronauts on the ISS also output the first items 3D-printed in space; the first test print was of a printer component. Perhaps most impressive, the ISS team produced a ratchet wrench using a design file that was transmitted from the ground (Earth) to the 3D printer. Be sure to read on for the specifics.

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29 December, 2014

The team at the European Space Agency (ESA), headquartered in Paris, has secured its and the Rosetta mission’s place in the history books with an historic landing on a comet.

The Philae lander was equipped with limited battery power with which to perform several tests before it would be forced to hibernate. In the limited timeframe, Philae successfully relayed all its self-tests and scientific data, including ROLIS, Ptolemy, SD2, COSAC, and CONSERT, completing the majority of testing slated for the lander on the surface.

Two of the most interesting discoveries from the Rosetta mission, thus far, are that comet 67P “sings” and the makeup of the water and ice varies greatly from the water on Earth. Readings taken from the comet measure magnetic oscillations, which scientists sped up to the tune of 10,000 times the original rate in order to make them audible to the human ear. The result is an eerie cyclical clicking.

Currently, the prevailing theory for how water arrived on Earth in such massive quantities was from comet bombardment in the planets’ early life. However, the makeup of the water and ice on 67P is calling that theory into question.

The Ptolemy test suite takes samples from the SD2 sampling and drilling system and uses gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GCMS) techniques to analyze the comet surface and subsurface.  So what did the analysis uncover? 67P has very heavy water.


Generally on Earth for every 10,000 water molecules, three deuterium atoms can be found. On comet 67P, however, “it is more than three times higher than on the Earth, which means that this kind of comet could not have brought water to the Earth,” explains Professor Kathrin Altwegg of the University of Bern in Switzerland. “It is the highest-ever measured ratio of heavy water relative to light water in the Solar System,” he adds.

Researchers are hoping that, as the comet approaches the sun, Philae may get enough power to come out of hibernation and witness first hand a comet as it traverses around the Sun. This mil/aero geek couldn’t be more excited about and inspired by this monumental achievement in human history and as we further unravel the mysteries behind the birth of the solar system we call home.

29 December, 2014

It is customary to look back at the major accomplishments of the previous 12 months as each calendar year comes to a close. This year, the military and aerospace (mil/aero) community has logged several technological achievements, not the least of which was landing on a comet for the first time in history.

Scientists, engineers, and officials at the European Space Agency (ESA), with headquarters in Paris, France, solidified their place in the history books with this momentous triumph. Some ESA personnel now joke that they landed on the comet not just once, but three times.

Philae, part of the now-famous Rosetta mission to rendezvous with the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, was armed with two harpoons and landing thrusters to anchor it to the comet; yet, the landing was softer than expected and neither the harpoon nor the thruster fired upon landing. The first bounce threw the lander over one half mile from the comet’s surface at a velocity of 15 inches per second. Had the lander exceeded 17 inches/second, it would have broken the comet’s gravity and tumbled into space!

Philae Landing System

The second touchdown was a bit tamer at 1.2 inches/second with the lander believed to have hit a feature on the comet to slow it down. Philae is believed to sit in the shadow of a cliff or other surface prominence with an estimated one hour of exposure to the sun which spells bad news for the solar-powered lander.

This mil/aero geek hopes there is light at the end of the tunnel for the little lander that could.

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24 December, 2014

The European Space Agency (ESA) launched its Rosetta spacecraft in 2004, a full decade ago. The military and aerospace (mil/aero) mission achieved a first in 2014, when ESA staffers landed on a moving comet.

While en route, the spacecraft rounded Mars and even snapped a few photos of the Red Planet’s surface as it passed by. Also in 2007, Rosetta was misidentified as an asteroid and briefly labeled as “minor planet 2007 VN.”

Rosetta passed Earth in 2009 and, on its travels in 2010, it photographed main-belt asteroid 21 Lutetia. In fact, during the hasty nine-mile-per-second flyby, Rosetta snapped 462 images and measured the magnetic field and plasma environment.

In May 2014, Rosetta started to prep for landing on a moving comet; it began deceleration with eight scheduled engine burns.

Rosetta Orbit Burn

Finally, in August 2014, Rosetta was ready to go to work. Arriving at 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P), a moving comet, it maneuvered into orbit after several thruster burns brought the probe within 19 miles of the comet nucleus. The ESA staff began studying the comet to find a landing zone suitable for the landing module. They selected five potential landing sites and, on 25 September 2014, settled on Site J at the head of the comet as the landing zone.

The Philae lander detached from Rosetta on 12 November 2014, descended to 67P at 2.2 mph, made contact with the comet surface at 15:33 UTC, and then bounced twice. It landed not once, but three times, ESA scientists and engineers reveal. A 17:33 UTC, Philae had found its new home.

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23 December, 2014

Rosetta has topped many industry pundits’ lists as one of the top technological achievements of the year. 2014 has seen several military and aerospace (mil/aero) achievements, such as in robotics and small (cube) satellites, but the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Rosetta mission tops them all.

Indeed, the Rosetta mission tops a majority of industry pundits’ lists of major achievements, including firsts, logged in 2014. “This year, the future arrived big time,” according to “2014: The Year in Sci-Tech” on The Science Channel; the roundup of technology firsts in 2014 discusses robots, including unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) such as the Global Hawk, 3D printing or additive manufacturing, and spacecraft, including Rosetta.

Rosetta was a hard-won achievement. The mission has spanned 10 years to date and roughly four billion miles. Plus, landing on a moving comet wasn’t even the toughest part of the project, which has been characterized as a “nail biter.”


While en route to the comet, Rosetta kept members of the mission on their toes. In February of 2007, the spacecraft performed a risky flyby, coming within 160 miles of the Martian surface. In so doing, the craft sacrificed its power; the flyby cut off vital power from the craft’s solar panels for 15 minutes. The maneuver has been nicknamed “The Billion Euro Gamble” because without power from the solar panels, ESA personnel on the ground had no communication with the spacecraft and onboard probe.

Rosetta’s story is not done, and neither is this mil/aero geek. Stay tuned for more, including Rosetta being misidentified four three years into the mission.

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23 December, 2014

2014 saw more than its fair share of firsts, according to “2014: The Year in Sci-Tech” airing on The Science Channel, owned by Discovery Communications. Innovators in the military and aerospace (mil/aero) community logged many of these achievements made for the first time in history.

Among these impressive firsts was a major milestone achieved by the European Space Agency (ESA), headquarters in Paris. The ESA successfully inserted robotic space probe Rosetta into orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P). Arriving at 67P, a moving comet, was no small feat.

That last bit of information bears repeating; that’s right, the ESA landed a module on a moving comet – a considerable challenge. Rosetta travelled for more than nine years and over a distance of 4 billion miles to provide an international team of scientists access to 21 instruments and the Philae lander module. The Rosetta mission is the first of its kind and is aimed at observing a comet as it approaches the Sun.


The $1.8 billion Rosetta spacecraft, with onboard instruments and Philae probe, launched 2 March 2004 (more than a decade ago) from Guiana Space Center in French Guiana. The spacecraft performed a series of gravity assist maneuvers three times around Earth, and once around Mars before hurdling itself at an estimated 34,000 miles per hour (mph) toward 67P.

The full, 10-year Rosetta mission was not a smooth one, despite winning itself and the entire ESA accolades and a prominent place in mil/aero history. There’s lots more to the mission; be sure to continue reading about the high-risk Rosetta project in this mil/aero geek’s next installment.

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17 December, 2014

2014 has been an outstanding year for aerospace, and particularly the commercial space and commercial aviation market segments. In fact, the military portion of the military and aerospace (mil/aero) industry has been in the doldrums of late, especially in the United States and European Union, in the age of tightening defense budgets.

Commercial aviation and commercial space took their knocks this year, however. One example on the aviation side continues to be the unfortunate and perplexing loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. Perhaps no other singular event this year has more effectively pointed out the need for advanced technology and innovation, integration, cooperation, and collaboration than that of Flight 370.

On the commercial space side, the fourth quarter of 2014 has been rough, seemingly marked by mishap after mishap; for spaceships, a mishap is typically a grand explosion, a ball of fire. This was the case with the latest International Space Station (ISS) Commercial Resupply Services Mission (Orb-3).


What would have been the third of eight flights performed by Orbital Sciences, under its $1.9 million (U.S. $) Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA, burst into flames as the world watched. NASA’s entire Commercial Resupply Services program calls for a total of 20 resupply missions to the ISS; eight by Orbital Sciences Corp. and 12 by SpaceX.

Estimated losses for the Antares rocket alone top $200 million, without taking into account the onboard cargo lost and any damage to Launchpad at NASA’s facility.

This mil/aero geek is reminded that getting to space with current technology is a difficult and complex process. NASA Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier calls it “a really tough business,” and this geek couldn’t agree more.

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17 December, 2014

Transportation is a hotbed of activity, and an industry vertical that is garnering as much attention as it is investment. By drilling down into different market segments, we see positive numbers and continued innovation.

The automotive sector continues its strong progression, with global automotive sales reaching a record high in 2013, with more than 82 million sold and a growth rate of more than seven percent year over year. Early predictions indicate potential annual global auto sales will hit 85 million this year; we will have to wait and see.

Railways in the United States are gaining much-needed upgrades, whereas the United Kingdom is investing in replacing aging locomotives and railcars. China is investing in a high-speed rail network, while work continues on rail transportation in the Middle East and Africa.


Passenger aircraft continues to be a high point in the military and aerospace (mil/aero) industry. The commercial aviation and commercial aerospace sectors are overachievers, frankly – helping to boost the entire industry even while other market segments remain flat or even decline.

The good news – and there is much of it in the world of transportation today – is that automotive, rail, and aviation are all performing well. Further, market analysts predict continued good health and even growth; e.g., most forecasts predict compound annual growth rates in the range of four to seven percent. This mil/aero geek is optimistic about the future, especially considering that associations, OEMs, and suppliers across the industry are collaborating and talking about maximizing technology transfer – good news for the market, global community, and traveling public.

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