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Space Tango: Building systems for R&D and manufacturing on-orbit

Written by Tess Roberts

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NASA Astronaut Drew Feustel (left) and ESA Astronaut Alexander Gerst (right) prepare to install Space Tango’s CubeLabs on the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

“The quoting process consistently gives Space Tango the best prices compared to other vendors. Using Hubs’ automated online ordering platform for almost instant pricing of our designs is extremely valuable and allows Space Tango to be agile in our engineering process.” - Paul Kuehl, Senior Mechanical Engineer at Space Tango

Organization Space Tango
Industry Space
Technology CNC machining, 3D printing (SLS)
Materials Aluminum 6061-T6 (anodized), Stainless steel 316L, PEEK, Nylon

Space Tango aims to create a better future for humanity by utilizing a unique attribute of space - microgravity. The company designs and builds automated systems to support health and technology R&D on the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory that approaches microgravity as an innovation platform.

Designing hardware to operate in microgravity

To store and power the experiments conducted on the ISS, Space Tango develops custom facilities, like lockers. Mass and strength are core to the design of these facilities so that the hardware can operate in microgravity, while also withstanding a rocket launch.

The Powered Ascent Utility Locker (PAUL). Photo Credit: NASA
Photo Credit: Space Tango

The Powered Ascent Utility Locker (PAUL), designed by the Space Tango team, is hard mounted to the launch vehicle on the ascent to space and therefore needs to be both light and durable enough to withstand launch and landing forces. Less mass (and volume) increases the total capacity of what can launch to the ISS.

“We also need to pay close attention to mass distribution,” adds Paul Kuehl, Senior Mechanical Engineer at Space Tango, “as the center of gravity of the locker is an important design constraint driven by the launch vehicle specifications.”

Equipment to conduct biological experiments in space, from Earth

The first PAUL concepts were conceived in 2018, as a response to the space research and development needs to support complex biological payloads that demand consistent power and data monitoring. Since then, PAUL has gone through three iterations to make the design lighter and more refined.

The two PAULs, on board the recent SpaceX 21st Commercial Resupply Services mission (SpaceX CRS-21), contained two CubeLabs™. CubeLabs are modules that allow multiple health and technology investigations to run simultaneously on orbit, while providing interactive payload management from Earth and downlink of data from the ISS.

An assembled CubeLab. Structure manufactured in anodized aluminum.

The structure of these CubeLabs are manufactured in anodized aluminum, which is biocompatible. As Space Tango’s hardware supports biological research and development in microgravity, the biocompatibility of materials and finishes is very important. This is critical to the design of complex fluidic manifolds that are used for biological experience in some CubeLab investigations.

An assembled CubeLab. Structure manufactured in anodized aluminum.

“Designing the manifolds can be a design challenge,” shares Paul, “mostly because in microgravity, fluids behave differently primarily due to surface tension dynamics and the lack of buoyancy and sedimentation within fluids in the low-gravity environment. We have to be mindful of this and design manifolds that optimizes the flow of fluids while avoiding cavities or geometries where bubbles can form or get trapped.”

Manufacturing high quality parts at a competitive price

Many of the parts that make up the laboratory facilities were manufactured through online manufacturing platform Hubs. Paul opted for Hubs because of the very reasonable pricing and “the quoting process consistently gives Space Tango the best prices compared to other vendors,” he adds, “Using Hubs’ automated online ordering platform for almost instant pricing of our designs is extremely valuable and allows Space Tango to be agile in our engineering process.”

Quality is equally important to Space Tango. “We’ve been impressed with the quality of the parts we’ve received and have had very few parts that were not within our specification. The Hubs team continues to be very effective in communicating with us about our specific needs and we appreciate Hubs’ continued commitment to Space Tango.”

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