Voyager 1 and 2 launched in August and September of 1977 with an audacious mission to visit the outer planets. Their nuclear power meant they would continue to operate for years after completing their mission. That hardly mattered, though, since we didn’t have the technology to communicate with them at those distances. But as the little craft screamed away from us, engineers set about fixing that. They made big radio dishes bigger. They learned how to combine signals from the dishes so they can listen for Voyager’s data, which is broadcast 15 billion miles away with the same power as a refrigerator light bulb. What was impossible is now a daily event..
Aerospace CNC Machining is a Long Game
Engineers figured that out. The CNC machining of aerospace parts made it possible. The alignment of the planets allows for that “grand tour” happens every 175 years. Nature set that launch window. Some of the world’s most advanced machining spent a decade focused on building the spacecraft, followed by years more making sure we could talk to them. It’s fair to say they did well. The Voyager probes are still sending back scientific data 45 years later.
The James Webb Space Telescope spent about 25 years in development. NASA’s current Artemis program has been on the drawing board since 2005. Much of the reason behind these long lead times is simply engineers and machinists figuring out how to create the machines.
In Space No One Can Hear You Bang Your Head on Your Desk
The “Space” part of aerospace is the most unforgiving environment imaginable. The incredible temperatures, radiation, vacuum, solar weather, and foreign objects flying past at 15,000 miles per hour has led to a whole new rule book for CNC machining aerospace parts. Part of that new rule book takes the form of AS9100 certification. AS9100 shops like Ben Machine meet and adhere to specific standards and practices that cover every aspect of development and manufacturing. As engineers get more creative and complex in their designs, AS9100 provides aerospace CNC machine shops like Ben Machine with guidelines and best practices to ensure the mission has its best chance of success.
Metals don’t behave the same in the cold of space. You have to test how materials react when they touch. The Saturn V shrank 8 inches just under the weight of its own fuel. The temperature difference between sides of the James Webb Space Telescope is about 600 degrees Fahrenheit. The Canadarm on the International Space Station swings through 500-degree temperature changes every 90 minutes.
Thermal expansion and contraction is a bear. Engineers had to test unfolding the Webb Space Telescope repeatedly on earth while accounting for different joints being much hotter or colder a million miles away. Those joints had to work the first time. Thanks to the engineers and a lot of CNC machining of aerospace parts, they did. It’s that careful analysis of the way machined parts behave that makes space exploration possible -testing, redrawing, re-making the parts to the new specs, and testing again, over and over, for years sometimes.
When you’re working in aerospace, CNC machining is often a trial by fire. Granted, advancements in engineering and material sciences have improved the lead time for development, testing, and prototyping. Ben Machine has decades of experience in CNC machining aerospace parts, and we’re proudly AS9100 certified. We can’t wait to continue our role in the aerospace industry as the next generations of spacecraft move from the drawing board to the launchpad.