Mini-Cubes successful in 3D printing flight-ready mini satellites

Miniature satellite manufacturer Mini-Cubes, with the help of 3D printing service provider CRP USA, has developed and produced three 3D printed, flight-ready PocketQubes.

The satellites were manufactured out of a carbon fiber reinforced composite material, Windform XT 2.0, using polymer SLS technology. According to Mini-Cubes, it is the first company in the world to employ the material type for this specific application – with promising results, no less.

First assembly of the Windform Frame. Photo via Mini-Cubes.
First assembly of the Windform Frame. Photo via Mini-Cubes.

A 3D printed Discovery

Mini-Cubes’ satellite is named Discovery, and its primary purpose is to monitor natural resources on the surface of the Earth. This particular project was intended as a proof-of-concept for the company’s design. Joe Latrell, CEO of Mini-Cubes, had his first run-in with additive manufacturing a few years ago when he was prototyping rocket fins for his former aerospace employer. Seeking to leverage the technology once again, he turned to CRP USA to 3D print the frame of the satellite in its entirety.

Latrell explains: “We wanted to include a camera for visual observation, just to see if it could be done. If the process works, we can use the technology to create a constellation of PocketQube satellites just for monitoring a specific resource. In our case, that resource is water.”

Challenges on the road to orbit

The two main challenges faced in the development stage were miniaturization and material compatibility. Latrell, in his initial vision, pictured a satellite with an internal volume of just 50 x 50 x 50mm. Within its chamber would be a camera, a radio system, and all the electronics required to monitor Earth from several hundred miles away.

The manufacturing of the external shell was no easy feat either, as a failure in one part meant the failure of the whole spacecraft. After much deliberation with CRP USA, Latrell eventually decided on carbon fiber reinforced Windform XT 2.0, a material that strikes a great balance between mechanical properties and printability.

Latrell adds: “The combination of strength and ease of use made the material a natural choice for us.  We knew we wanted to use additive manufacturing for Discovery but understood that it would be hard to find something that would work in the harsh environment of space. We discovered Windform® XT 2.0 and after looking at its properties, it was a simple choice.”

The inner circuitry of Discovery. Photo via Mini-Cubes.
The inner circuitry of Discovery. Photo via Mini-Cubes.

Interstellar testing

The project involved the printing of three functional Discovery prototypes. Two are being used for testing while the final one will be sent up into orbit. Mini-Cubes claims the prototypes have already passed a number of tests thrown at them, such as a 20kg load test, a NASA GEVS-7000 specification vibration test, and a vacuum test. The PocketQubes have also survived temperatures between 50°C and -40°C. Latrell plans to test Discovery in orbit for the first time in Q2 of 2021.

The additive manufacturing of end-use aerospace components is becoming more and more popular as private organizations begin to truly understand the nuances of the technology. Just this month, British aerospace company Orbex announced that its 3D printed rockets will be the first to launch from the UK’s new spaceport – the ‘Sutherland Space Hub’. The SLM printed engines run on liquid oxygen and propane, and are designed to be eco-friendly.

Elsewhere, aerospace firm ArianeGroup announced the successful testing of its entirely 3D printed rocket combustion chamber. The extensive testing round involved 14 fire tests between 26 May and 2 June 2020 on the P8 test bench of the DLR German Aerospace Center’s Lampoldshausen testing facility.

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Featured image shows first assembly of the Windform Frame. Photo via Mini-Cubes.