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In the far future, scientists may be able to fly 3-D printers to, say, Mars (shown here), and print out spacecraft.
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updated 4/12/2012 1:45:19 PM ET 2012-04-12T17:45:19

NASA is looking into whether the growing field of printable electronics can be tapped to supply cheap fleets of robotic spacecraft, a potential game-changer for space exploration.

Printable electronics, already common for consumer products, are produced by inkjet printers that use specialty liquids to print electrically conductive trails, transistors, circuits and even photovoltaic cells onto a material, such as Kapton film (a film developed by DuPont that can remain stable in a wide range of temperatures).

The idea would be to print out sheets embedded with all the electronics a robotic spacecraft needs — sensors for gathering scientific information, data processing, data downlink and a communications system.

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"The crazy part about it is there's no structure. The entire spacecraft is basically a sheet of paper," lead researcher Kendra Short, with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told Discovery News.

"That's the Holy Grail. That's what we'd hope to do in about 10 years from now," she said.

Printable spacecraft would be ideal for scientists wanting to collect information from multiple locations at the same time. Multiple sheets of spacecraft could flutter around a planet and gather data.

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"Imagine a Mars or an Enceladus (a moon of Saturn) surface network where you bring a carrier spacecraft, or an entry vehicle or something, you open it up and these little pieces of paper basically flutter down to the surface of the planet and do chemical composition measurements, atmospheric measurements — pressure, density, temperate — things like that," Short said.

Short points out that a traditional lander, like the ones NASA has deployed on Mars, would not be able to reach as many locations. Not to mention they're far more expensive to build.

"But imagine these things just sprinkled all around, or even descending through the atmosphere of Saturn or Jupiter, and spreading over thousands of miles, transmitting data back to a host spacecraft or something. You'd get a lot of measurements in a lot of different places that you wouldn't otherwise be able to get to," Short said.

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In the far future, scientists may be able to fly the printer to the site, upload a design file and print out probes as needed.

The project, which is in the early study phase, is among 30 potentially revolutionary technologies NASA is investigating.

"We're looking for something that leaps beyond, that is one or two orders of magnitude higher performance or lower cost or something that makes it less risky," Jay Falker, manager of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, told Discovery News.

"If we have one breakthrough, it'll all be worthwhile," he said.

Short presented her research this week at an NIAC conference in Pasadena, Calif.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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