A new in-orbit implementation of 3D printing technology could significantly reduce the costs of satellite launches.
Japanese technology company Mitsubishi Electric Corporation has developed a new solar-powered method to 3D print satellite antennas in space, a company press release reveals.
The new technique could reduce costs by removing the need to transport bulky parts that take up a lot of rocket space in orbit. For reference, SpaceX typically charges around $1,200 per pound (0.45 kg) payload to reach low Earth orbit.
Mitsubishi’s method uses a unique “photoresist” that reacts to ultraviolet radiation from the Sun, turning into a rigid solid material ideal for space.
Antennas are more sensitive the larger they are, which means that there is a significant limitation in the sensitivity of antennas in space due to the constraints of conventional satellite launching methods. They must also be built to be strong enough to withstand vibration during launch without breaking, which means they must use heavier materials, which increases the launch cost for the satellite operator.
This means that parts 3D printed in space can be much lighter and thinner than a traditional space antenna. In other words, operators will be able to launch satellites at lower cost and with improved capabilities.
3D printing in space
So far, Mitsubishi has only tested its material by simulating space conditions on Earth. The company’s researchers say a 6.5-inch (16.5 centimeter) wide 3D-printed satellite dish performed no differently than a traditional satellite dish in their lab tests.
The photoresist was also able to survive temperatures up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit (400 degrees Celsius) in testing, meaning it would be suitable for conditions in space. The Mitsubishi team also noted that its resin does not require atmospheric oxygen to prevent it from solidifying, another feature that makes it ideal for building satellite dishes. Because it uses natural ultraviolet light, the company’s 3D printing technology also consumes less energy.
“Antenna designs for spacecraft are challenging due to their conflicting requirements for high gain, wide bandwidth and low weight,” Mitsubishi said. “High gain and wide bandwidth necessarily require a large aperture, but economic orbital deployment conventionally dictates that designs be lightweight and small enough to stand or fold inside a launch vehicle or mechanism. of satellite deployment.”
Mitsubishi also claimed that with its new technology, “additive manufacturing in space has now become possible”. However, it should be noted that the International Space Station already has a 3D printer launched to the orbital station in 2014. The European Space Agency also announced last year that it would experiment with 3D printing in space. using scrap from the Moon.
Still, the company’s new method has the potential to drastically reduce the cost of satellite launches and could pave the way for building other vital parts for future space missions.