PARC — home of the laser printer, ethernet, the graphical user interface and the Alto computer — is best known for its role in Silicon Valley’s past. But in late July, a window in the belly of the center’s Palo Alto campus provided a look at the future: printable electronics that could someday go into space.
The window led to PARC’s clean room, where bodysuit-protected researchers milled about while a printer the size of an office copy machine whirred. For three or four months now, a PARC team has been working with NASA on printing heat and light sensors that would be ideal for environmental sensing on the surface of Mars. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory lead researcher Kendra Short said that eventually they’ll be able to print other types of electronics that take in solar energy, communicate wirelessly and more.
The electronics are printed on thin plastic sheets. Ideally, they could be released on Mars and flutter about on the surface over a wide area. Information such as heat or light would be picked up by the sensors and then communicated wirelessly back to Earth.
“We’re sort of building it up piece by piece, starting with design,” said Gregory Whiting, a member of the Electronic Materials and Devices Laboratory at PARC. “For space applications in particular, our sort of dream is we’d like to do some tests outside of Earth. We’d like to put things on rockets and see if we can measure useful things and if they’ll stand up to the right environments.” …
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