So many 3D printed or partially 3D printed satellites have been launched into space at this time, it’s hard to believe it’s only been two years since the first one was sent up. In April 2015, the Turkmen Alem MonacoSat was launched into orbit with a 3D printed antenna support manufactured by Thales Alenia Space, making history as the first satellite ever to go into space with a 3D printed component. It certainly wasn’t the last, though, and it wasn’t the last for Thales, either – far from it. At this time, Thales Alenia Space has sent into orbit at least 79 metal 3D printed parts and 350 3D printed polymer tube supports created for chemical propulsion systems.
Since that first partially satellite was sent into space, all of Thales’ satellites have included 3D printed antenna supports and reflector fittings. In January of this year, the company also launched the first Iridium NEXT satellites, which contained 3D printed propulsion system tube supports, in the first flight application of thermoplastic 3D printing and yet another affirmation of polymer 3D printing’s growing capabilities for producing functional parts.
Thales Alenia Space isn’t just doing the same thing over and over again, either. The polymer tube supports have all been identical, but of the 79 metal 3D printed parts the company has sent into orbit, 47 have different designs and serve 13 different functions.
Thales has obviously always been a company that thinks big, but they’re now thinking even bigger: the company has announced that they will now be focusing on developing much larger 3D printed parts to be launched into space. As one example, Thales plans to soon launch a satellite with dual 3D printed antenna supports that measure 480 x 378 x 364 mm. The parts presented a significant challenge to manufacture, the company says.
“Our development efforts are now focusing on integrating several functions in a single part, such as mechanical, thermal and radio-frequency functions,” said Florence Montredon, Additive Manufacturing Technology Development Manager at Thales Alenia Space. “The challenge lies as much in the design process as in the production technique.”
The development of multi-functional 3D printed parts is a big step forward from support structures, but the technology has come far enough that it’s now possible to do so – not without challenges, of course. The benefits, however, outweigh the challenges: additive manufacturing allows companies like Thales to design and fabricate formerly multi-part structures in a single component. The tube supports, for example, replaced multi-part components. 35 of them were placed on each satellite, resulting in a much lower number of parts than would otherwise have been required.
The result is satellites that are more lightweight and thus much less costly to launch into space. Thales most often uses laser beam melting processes with aluminum or titanium powders to 3D print their parts. The most recent satellites launched by the company were the SGDC, a dual civil-military satellite for Brazilian client Visiona Tecnologica Espacial, and KOREASAT-7, which was developed for South Korean telecom/media service provider KT Sat. Thales Alenia Space is now working on the KOREASAT-5A model. Discuss in the Thales Alenia Space forum at 3DPB.com.[Sources/Image: Thales Alenia Space / Optics.org]