It’s been a busy month on a few different fronts for Fleet Space, the Australian space startup that launched the country’s first four commercial nanosatellites in November 2018. To keep up with the growing demand for its 3D printed satellites, the company partnered with Konica Minolta to implement 3D Systems printers to support its in-house satellite production capabilities. The trio will collaborate to go straight into volume manufacturing of satellites and has, in fact, already received the first metal AM platform at its Western Australia headquarters in Beverley, a 3D Systems DMP Flex 350. In addition, Fleet Space’s Alpha satellites – to be launched in 2023 – will integrate radiation shielding from local cold spray AM technology manufacturer Titomic (ASX: TTT).
To unlock the potential of global connectivity, Fleet Space wants to connect the Internet of Things (IoT) around the world with a massive fleet of its small, low-cost Alpha satellites. To achieve that goal, it is establishing a satellite Hyper Factory in the first dedicated space manufacturing hub, called Australian Space Park in Adelaide, backed by an AU$20 million ($14 million) investment from the South Australian Government. Once the first 3D-printed Alpha satellites launch to low Earth orbit (LEO), they will sit next to its existing Centauri constellation for global satellite connectivity to the IoT.
This recently announced plans to launch a constellation of fully additively manufactured Alpha satellites caught Titomic’s attention, and now the cold spray 3D printing specialist will use its Titomic Kinetic Fusion technology to mitigate ionizing radiation to prolong the satellite’s lifespan through a cold spray AM and coating process which allows deposition and fusion of dissimilar metals.
To provide radiation shielding, the Titomic Kinetic Fusion technology will fuse thin layers of material to make customized, multi-material radiation shielding in a range of areal densities tailored to Alpha’s specific mission, offering a cost-effective solution to protect against harsh ionizing radiation in LEO.
Commenting on the project, Titomic’s head of engineering, Max Osborne, said the company’s radiation mitigating coating would significantly prolong the satellite’s lifespan, allowing it to remain operational for several years beyond previous iterations.
“For example, in low-Earth orbit, a small amount of shielding provides a cost and weight-effective insurance policy for enhanced reliability and additional mission life, and for higher orbits, further shielding can even reduce a dependence on expensive, radiation-hardened components,” stated Osborne. “With an ever-increasing number of participants and commercialization of space, increasing operational life is one aspect of managing congestion. Extending the operational lifetime reduces the number of replacement platforms, their associated launch costs, and the need to track and de-orbit as many decommissioned platforms.”
Described by Fleet Space CEO and co-founder Flavia Tata Nardini as a new take on small satellites, Alpha has migrated away from the CubeSat and nanosat standards into its own category. It’s an entirely different design than traditional small sats, says Nardini. One side of the satellite is covered in 3D-printed antennas creating several beams, and the entire product will be 3D printed. Costing roughly the same as the company’s Centauri satellites, Alpha is expected to have a better performance. Once in orbit, the Alpha satellites will form a constellation to backhaul customer data from remote areas not serviced by terrestrial communications. The applications for the Fleet Space technology include backhauling geophysical survey data for mining exploration, enabling rapid 3D-modelling of vast terrain.
Partnering to 3D print spacecraft
With the Australian space sector growing significantly and expected to be worth AU$12 billion ($8.3 billion) by 2030, Fleet Space wants to be among the leading companies to build a constellation of small satellites to provide high-value data and automation to the world’s industries. So far in 2022, the startup has grown its number of customers exponentially and added new team members, like Saju Pothen from Hitachi and Francesco Chiarelli, who was previously at Schneider Electric.
As far as 3D printing is concerned, the company has established a new partnership with Konica Minolta to implement 3D printers from 3D Systems to support its innovation. The new printer, delivered just three weeks ago, will also scale up Fleet Space’s manufacturing of small satellites for LEO to connect billions of devices.
The small satellites from Fleet Space incorporate the world’s first 3D printed, all-metal patch antenna, which delivers ten times more throughput per kilogram of spacecraft. Since Fleet Space has been contracted to scale its operations significantly in 2022 and 2023 and needed a more efficient way to 3D print these antennae at scale, so it decided to harness the efficiency of deploying a smart, in-house 3D printing solution. Otherwise, additively manufacturing these antennae is usually outsourced to an offshore provider.
According to Konica Minolta Australia’s national manager Matthew Hunter, the multinational reached out to Fleet Space to start a discussion and begin a proof of concept to prove that the 3D Systems DMP 350 Flex metal 3D printing solution could deliver the outcomes Fleet Space required. The local Konica Minolta branch and 3D Systems then worked with Fleet Space to develop a build strategy, first proving that the DMP 350 was capable of printing the quality of the aluminum part and in the volume required for Fleet Space to keep up with demand. This process was vital in Fleet Space’s decision to implement the metal printer.
Hunter explained that in the highly technical environment of spacecraft manufacturing, Konica Minolta proved that 3D Systems’ metal printers allow users to print with aluminum in a precise, repeated, and scalable method. Although Fleet Space initially plans to use the 3D printer to scale up manufacturing of the metal antennae, the capabilities provided by this new device will let Australia’s leading satellite manufacturer ramp up innovation at the same time, using it to develop prototypes and new parts during downtime from manufacturing the antennae.
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