Student engineers design pioneering antenna-building orbital 3D printer

Engineering students from the Munich University of Applied Sciences have developed a novel 3D printer that’s capable of fabricating satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). 

Built as part of the ‘AMIS-FYT’ project, the team’s extrusion-based system is designed to construct solar panels or antennas in zero-gravity conditions. The new machine potentially reduces the need to fire heavy machinery into space, saving resources while allowing more fuel to be carried, lengthening future missions. 

“For satellites, the fuel is usually the limiting factor and at present, it usually lasts for around 15 years,” explained Torben Schäfer, Press Officer of the AIMIS-FYT team. “Our 3D printing process can directly print three-dimensional structures in space using a UV-curing adhesive or potting compound.” 

The benefits of orbital 3D printing 

Usually spacecraft are developed, tested and assembled on Earth, before being fired into space via a launch vehicle to their mission location. Even satellite parts such as 3D printed waveguides or additive manufactured heat exchangers with clear space-faring applications, are constructed here then bussed into orbit by a commercial carrier. 

While building devices on terra firma may be more convenient than in LEO, it requires each component to be beefed-up, so that they’re capable of resisting the stresses of initial launch. However, these larger volume parts take up valuable room onboard their launch shuttles, reducing the amount of fuel that can be carried and increasing mission cost. 

To combat this, the Munich University students have developed a novel 3D printer that’s designed to produce aerospace components in orbit, removing the need to transport them altogether. Zero-gravity fabrication has other potential benefits too, as additive manufactured parts don’t need to meet launch durability requirements, meaning that they can be tailored to better meet the needs of their mission. 

The AIMIS-FYT team of student engineers.
The AIMIS team (pictured) aim to deploy their new 3D printer in future space missions. Photo via AIMIS- FYT.

Manufacturing antennas in zero-g

Like many conventional 3D printers, the team’s system features a photopolymer extruder, but instead of creating parts in a layer-by-layer approach, the new system builds them using only the movement of its printhead. By extruding directly into space, the machine is capable of producing complex objects without the need for support structures, or even a fixed anchor point such as a pressure plate. 

In order to demonstrate their printer’s capabilities, the engineers have 3D printed a range of differently-shaped rods in zero-gravity conditions. During the tests, the team deployed a specialized IDS high-resolution camera, which allowed them to closely monitor the nozzle’s progress, despite the difficult lighting conditions which simulated those in LEO. 

“Since there are only twenty seconds of zero gravity on a parabolic flight, we only save the most important information,” explained Schäfer. “With the help of the IDS, we were able to seamlessly integrate the camera into our monitoring system. This live feed made it easier for us to set up and quickly analyse the printhead.”

Following their successful tests, the team believe that their system could either be used as a means of fabricating optimized antenna mirrors, or mounting structures for solar generators. In particular, the engineers are targeting satellite manufacturers and distributors, who by 3D printing parts in LEO, stand to reduce their launch and production costs. 

Moving forwards, the students now intend to continue optimizing their machine via weightless European Space Agency (ESA) tests, with a view to deploying it in space and demonstrating its potential for end-use within future missions. 

En-route aerospace 3D printing 

The potential efficiency benefits of 3D printing in LEO have led NASA to deploy the technology in various different space-faring applications in recent years. 

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) has contracted the KULR Technology Group to 3D print spare battery packs en-route to future space missions. Using its Passive Propagation Resistant (PPR) and Internal Short Circuit (ISC) processes, the firm is building the systems to meet NASA’s lofty thermal safety standards. 

Similarly, NASA has installed U.S. aerospace firm Tethers Unlimited Inc’s (TUI) Refabricator 3D printer and recycling system onboard the International Space Station (ISS). The machine is designed to enable astronauts to fabricate sustainable spare parts on-demand during exploration missions.

Made in Space has also collaborated with NASA onboard the ISS, and announced plans to launch its Ceramic Manufacturing Module (CMM) to the orbital base in September 2020. The SLA 3D printer is set to be the first of its kind to operate in LEO, and will be used to develop the technology’s commercial applications.

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Featured image shows the printhead of the engineers’ new orbital 3D printer in action. Gif via AIMIS-FYT.