Geometric complexity in satellites industry
Parts used in the space industry can be very complex geometrically, making traditional manufacturing very time-consuming and costly. 3D printing makes it possible to produce complex parts without the constraints of traditional manufacturing. Complex internal geometries, lightweight structures and optimised shapes can all be produced with ease. As an example, we can observe the complex design of the first aluminium antenna support, made using 3D printing by Thales Alenia Space in 2015
Antenna support, TAS, 2015
Reduced weight of parts
Airbus Defence and space estimates that an additional 1kg of satellite weight costs around 10,000 euros at launch. The heavier the satellite, the more fuel is needed for launch. Mass reduction is crucial in the space industry to save fuel and increase payload. Spacecraft require lightweight parts to reduce overall mass and optimise performance. However, traditional manufacturing methods can lead to excessive use of materials, making parts heavier.
3D printing makes it possible to use honeycomb and internal lightweight structures, reducing the amount of material used. For example, Airbus used 3D printing to produce a pipe support part that was 45% lighter than its machined version.
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Customisation and adaptability
Traditional manufacturing processes used in the space industry, such as CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining and casting, can be costly due to the complexity of the parts and the need for high technical specifications. Budgets for space missions are extremely high (from a few dozen to several hundred million euros), and with increasing competition on the market, reducing production costs is becoming a major concern for manufacturers.
Additive manufacturing enables the production of geometrically complex components, optimized for performance. For example, SpaceX uses 3D-printed engine nozzles that are lighter, stronger and more efficient than traditional versions. These components improve reliability and reduce satellite weight, resulting in fuel savings and increased payload.
SpaceX’s SuperDraco engines
In-orbit repair and maintenance
Additive manufacturing opens up possibilities for in-orbit repair and maintenance. For example, NASA has developed a 3D printing system called the “Refabricator” that can recycle astronaut plastic waste and transform it into new objects, including spare parts for satellites. This on-board manufacturing capability reduces dependence on resupply missions and extends the life of satellites.
Microsatellites and nanosatellites in 3D printing
Application of 3D printing for satellites
Panels and supports 3D Printed
Structural panels and supports are key elements of a satellite’s structure. They can be printed using fiber-reinforced composite materials, such as carbon or glass, to achieve high strength while reducing weight. 3D printing can also be used to create complex internal structures to optimize panel rigidity and lightness. In fact, the mechanical structure is made up of panels that are assembled to form a strong, rigid envelope. Sandwich” technology panels are mainly used. An aluminum honeycomb mesh is sandwiched between two aluminum or carbon fiber panels. This technology offers a very attractive weight/performance ratio.
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3D printing makes it possible to manufacture custom fixings to precisely integrate payload and platform components. These fasteners can be designed to reduce vibration, ensure precise alignment or facilitate modular satellite assembly.
Lattice structures 3D Printed
3D printing of CubeSats
A CubeSat is an artificial satellite format that is most commonly used for very small craft (less than 20 kilograms). CubeSats have gained popularity in the small spacecraft field, offering opportunities for research and development, as well as for corporate involvement in space initiatives. The uniform configuration of these space vehicles helps to reduce the expense and time associated with their creation and production.
In recent times, the number of CubeSats sent into space, often deployed in clusters, has been steadily increasing. In particular, Google and Elon Musk’s SpaceX have ambitious plans to launch around 50,000 CubeSats between them in the current decade.