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Advancing Space Applications with Additive Manufacturing

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Additive manufacturing (AM) has been used on spacecraft since the early 2010s, one early example being the NASA Juno Spacecraft, which launched in August 2011. AM is beneficial for spacecraft design because it enables lightweight, efficient designs that typically cannot be fabricated through traditional methods, which can also reduce overall cost and schedule. Maxar Space Systems established the AM Center of Excellence in 2012, which validated AM as an innovative and valuable approach for spacecraft manufacturing, established processes for qualifying AM components for spaceflight, and currently evaluates opportunities for 3D printing on future programs.

Maxar Space Systems built an extensive test campaign to create qualification guidelines, provide design allowables to engineering, and implement extensive process controls and material specifications to regulate procurement and production of AM flight parts. This has subsequently led Maxar Space Systems to qualify and fly many AM materials and components on various spacecraft platforms, including fused deposition modeling (FDM) Ultem and electrostatic-safe plastics, laser-powder bed fusion (L-PBF) of aluminum and titanium alloys, and electron beam melted (EBM) titanium. As of January 3rd, 2024, Maxar Space Systems has over 10,000 AM parts in space across 33 different satellites.

Additively manufactured, EBM titanium was flight qualified in late 2013 and has been used on over 25 structures built to date, a number which will increase to 62 structures when the first Maxar 300 constellation class program is completed this year. Of those structures, 19 are in flight on 13 different programs, with the first being launched in late 2016. The AM tower structure architecture uses AM parts with complex, unique geometry that are customized to each satellite, which would be prohibitively expensive or impossible to manufacture via traditional fabrication methods. A proprietary software program is used to generate the optimized AM part geometry based on the satellite’s orbit, function, and other factors that influence satellite architecture.

Figure 1: Modular Architecture with 3D Printed Titanium Components

Maxar Space Systems’ modular architecture was built and designed to provide the highest degree of mobility, performance, and resiliency. The spacecraft is unique in its overall architecture as the entire spacecraft is a modular truss-structure, which is a lighter-weight satellite (less than 2,000 kg), and the open truss structure allows for easy routing of critical hardware (harnesses, waveguide, etc.). Additionally, the modules can be taken apart and built/tested in parallel and then integrated for satellite-level tests and launch.

Figure 2: Antenna Module and Reflectors in Maxar Space Systems’ Palo Alto Manufacturing Facility

In late 2014, additively manufactured polymers were qualified for spaceflight, with the qualification of an electrostatic discharge (ESD)-safe plastic a few years later in early 2017. ESD-safe AM polymers enabled the controlled dissipation of charged particles from the parts. Some applications of the FDM plastics are thermal shields for thrusters, heat pipe covers, waveguide brackets, and non-flight tooling and manufacturing equipment. The 3D printed covers are exact matches to the parts they are fitting over and are much more accurate and lightweight when compared previous injection-molded parts. Another advantage of AM parts is part consolidation during manufacturing, which can improve schedule and lower costs.

Aluminum alloys were qualified for spaceflight in 2016 and have been used on multiple satellites for both structural and radio frequency (RF) hardware. The first RF component that Maxar Space Systems qualified was a waveguide, which is a hollow metal extrusion that carries and transfers RF signals inside a satellite. Since the first flight in 2021, AM waveguide is flight proven and considered heritage Maxar Space Systems technology. This technology has been leveraged in the design of over 1,000 AM components that will be used in the Beam-Forming Networks (BFNs) and other RF subsystems on an upcoming satellite. Since mass and schedule are key drivers for the feed clusters, they have been designed with AM in mind to (1) eliminate time consuming wire Electrical Discharge Machining (EDM), (2) reduce the length (and thus mass) of the phase shifting elements, and (3) eliminate joints that would normally be required in traditional dip brazed designs. Fast turnaround with AM and a proprietary RF design script allows for printed-at-test phase shifting elements to be produced based on realized RF pathway performance and measured main reflector surfaces, ensuring optimum performance with no impact to schedule.

Part of qualifying materials and processes for space applications is ensuring reliability and consistency. Most Maxar Space Systems spacecraft have an on-orbit operational lifespan of over 15 years, which is regularly surpassed, and any repairs required cannot be made once the spacecraft launches. Consistency and repeatability are ensured through rigorous process controls, which were developed by Maxar Space Systems internal research and development. Material characterization was performed on hundreds of samples, deriving the mechanical and physical properties of the AM materials. Application qualification is done anytime AM is used in a new subsystem to prove equivalence between the AM and traditional material while in a production configuration.

Figure 3: NASA Psyche Spacecraft with 3D Printed Titanium Components

As a provider of NASA satellites with AM components in the past and for future missions, Maxar Space Systems is working with the NASA Materials and Processing team to ensure Maxar Space Systems’s AM standards align with NASA requirements for future AM production on the Lunar Gateway. Maxar Space Systems is on the forefront of innovative manufacturing and the space industry has growing opportunities to apply advancing AM technology. With NASA and other certifying bodies becoming involved in the adoption and regulation of AM, it is very likely that there will be more innovation and adoption of additive manufacturing across the satellite industry.

About Maxar Space Systems

Maxar Space Systems is a leading provider of comprehensive space technologies. We deliver innovative solutions to government and commercial customers helping them unlock the promise of space to solve problems on Earth and beyond. We address a broad spectrum of needs for our customers, including mission systems engineering, product design, spacecraft manufacturing, assembly, integration, and testing. Maxar Space Systems is a trusted partner in commercial and government missions, combining more than 60 years of deep mission understanding with reliable performance and longevity. For more information, visit www.maxar.com.

Resources

  1. https://www.missionjuno.swri.edu/
  2. https://blog.maxar.com/space-infrastructure/2018/ssl-accelerates-innovation-with-advanced-designs-and-3d-printing
  3. https://www.stratasys.com/en/resources/webinars/additive-manufacturing-for-space/
  4. https://zenithtecnica.com/zenith-tecnica-announces-manufacture-of-3d-printed-ti6al4v-hardware-with-maxar-space-systems-for-nasa-psyche-mission/
  5. https://blog.maxar.com/space-infrastructure/2022/maxar-completes-first-on-orbit-flight-qualifications-for-a-3d-printed-waveguide
  6. https://standards.nasa.gov/standard/NASA/NASA-STD-6030

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