At the recent Satellite 2022 conference, held in Washington, D.C., Boeing subsidiary Millennium Space Systems announced that the company is planning to launch a 3D printed metal structure into orbit. Millennium’s CEO, Jason Kim, told SpaceNews, “At this point it’s space qualified but we want to get over the perception hump that it hasn’t flown yet.”
The launched structure will not operate as a working satellite, but will instead serve merely as a demonstration of the technology’s possibilities. Kim expects that such testing of the structure in real-world conditions will make it more attractive to purchasers: “The hardest part of the design for a structure is withstanding the launch vibration and loads. Once it gets on orbit there’s nothing really impacting the structure other than micro meteorites.”
According to Kim, the growth of Millennium’s investment in 3D printing has run concurrently with the company’s becoming a part of Boeing, which acquired Millennium in 2018. The CEO noted that Millennium has an order backlog of about 50 satellites, and that the main advantage the company sees in 3D-printing is the accelerated rate of production. Kim hopes that Millennium will, in the not-too-distant future, be capable of producing satellites in the “hundreds or thousands.” So long as the test goes as planned, the company will immediately thereafter begin using the structure in buses for the small satellites that represent Millennium’s primary market niche.
Like its parent company, Millennium Space’s main customer is the U.S. government. As the interview with Kim in SpaceNews points out, one possible natural fit for the technology unveiled at Satellite 2022 could be for the internet-in-space constellation that the Space Development Agency (SDA), a branch of the U.S. Defense Department, is constructing. Earlier this year, the SDA awarded $1.8 billion to York Space Systems, Lockheed Martin Space, and Northrop Grumman Space Systems to build 126 satellites that will be ready to launch by September, 2024. The agency will award additional, similar contracts in 2024, by which time Millennium’s tech will surely be even further along. Finally, this week, Millennium is opening a new advanced manufacturing and testing facility in the same city as its current headquarters: the defense contracting hotbed of El Segundo, CA. This, Kim asserts, will “help [Millennium] deliver these systems at a fast rate and high volume.”
While the main customer for the space sector is still—as it still is for Millennium Space—the U.S. government, startups are increasingly finding more business in the burgeoning private space industry, beloved by Earth’s ever-growing population of billionaires. Moreover, as noted in the SmarTech Analysis report from September, 2021, “3D Printing in Commercial Space: The AM Ecosystem in the Private Space Industry”, virtually the entirety of the $350 billion spent on the commercial space sector in 2020 was represented by satellites in some way. This included $17.6 billion for space systems manufacturing, and almost 100 satellite manufacturers have already used AM. If Millennium’s printed metal structure works, regardless of the company’s focus on the public sector, the project could still nonetheless set the tone for the industry, as a whole.
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