AMS Spring 2023

Mitsubishi Electric Embarks on 3D Printing Satellites in Space with Solar Power

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I’m bullish on 3D printing antennas, and I’ve also written about the billions to be had in 3D printing for satellites. It’s no surprise then that I’m very excited about the intersection of the two, which makes this recent announcement from Mitsubishi Electric particularly thrilling.The company aims to 3D print antennas for satellites and other components in space.

What the company is developing is an “on-orbit additive-manufacturing technology that uses photosensitive resin and solar ultraviolet light for the 3D printing of satellite antennas in outer space.” Mitsubishi Electric has managed to make a photopolymer resin that is stable in a vacuum and can be hardened by the sun’s UV rays. The firm’s solar 3D printing process is meant to be able to build large components that can be attached to the main satellite structure (bus).

This could mean that relatively compact satellites could be launched before antenna, solar panel arrays, and other elements are attached to 3D printed structures as they are built in space, allowing for a much larger satellite. Ideally this would save a lot of money on launch costs. Mitsubishi also hopes that the printed components would not have to be overbuilt to survive the stress of launch, so that they could be much lighter. This could save in launch costs overall, but you would still have to resupply the resin.

Specifically, the team hopes that it can print bodies for antenna because their ¨resin-based on-orbit manufacturing—efficiently realizes high-gain, wide-bandwidth, large-aperture antennas deployed from a lightweight, vibration-resistant launch package.¨ This is a very innovative approach and makes a lot of sense. Tethers Unlimited and Redwire subsidiary Made In Space have looked at similar in-space, in-orbit fabrication ideas previously. However, the idea to use solar curing is new. The idea of using it to help usher in new satellite designs could see some very impressive benefits.

This is no idle corporate thought experiment, though. Mitsubishi Electric manufactures air conditioners, elevators, and satellites. The company’s technological reach and breadth of activity is bewildering really. It is working on improved nuclear plants, semiconductors, LED displays, radar systems, robots and much more. In turn, Mitsubishi has the heft and technological expertise to build and implement something like this as well. Japan is also finding itself in the new space race. The company has missed out on the new crop of space startups and has little in the way of exciting ideas to lead the charge in space. However, now we’re seeing a good idea that would be immensely challenging to carry out, but could really make satellites better and more cost effective.

Will Mitsubishi pull it off? We can’t be sure at this point. There are really very few things a $34 billion corporation with the technical expertise Mitsubishi has cannot do. It could, given enough internal resources make this happen. But, it’s still a big bet on something very new. This seems sensible, much more so than other in-space manufacturing approaches do. It seems like there could be a business case for it, as well. It could radically change satellite design and have far reaching impacts on the development of space technology. The satellite market is set to grow astoundingly quickly and something like this could very well play a role in the future of the commercial space race. Also, this sounds like it could be the plot of a Bond film.

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