China Sets New Standard with 3D Printed Parts in Latest SAR Satellite Launch

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In an era where space exploration and satellite technology are advancing at an unprecedented pace, the successful launch of the SmartSat-2A satellite, better known as Zhixing-2A, on February 3, 2024, marks a significant milestone for China. This cutting-edge satellite was launched aboard a Smart Dragon3 launch vehicle developed by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) subsidiary China Rocket. SmartSat-2A is a key asset for Zhixing Space Technology, also known as Smart Satellite, a commercial firm on a mission to build a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) constellation, aiming to improve Earth observation capabilities through advanced radar technology. Contributing significantly to the satellite’s development, 3D printing company BLT used its metal 3D printing expertise to create some of its critical parts.

As part of the SmartSat-2A satellite project, BLT delivered a satellite body structure and three important components for the satellite’s radar, all produced using two BLT-S1000 large-format twelve-laser metal systems for parallel printing. The panel structure is 130 cm long, 98 cm wide, and 2 cm thick (roughly 4.27 feet x 3.22 feet x 0.07 feet), while the satellite body structure measures 130 cm long, 112.6 cm wide, and 33.5 cm thick (4.27 feet x 3.69 feet x 1.10 feet), making this what the company claims to be the biggest piece made with 3D printing for space in China.

For all the parts, BLT used an aluminum alloy material called AlSi10Mg, which ensures the parts are strong, flexible, and corrosion-resistant. The material facilitates large-scale lattice-skin structures with a 0.05 cm wall thickness and lattice filament diameter design.

Once the parts were created, the team conducted thorough analyses of part characteristics and operating conditions, overcoming challenges of deformation of large-scale panel-type skin lattice components through meticulous optimization.

The BLT-S1000 can be equipped with 8, 10, or 12 lasers. Image courtesy of BLT.

When the SmartSat-2A satellite made its way to sun-synchronous orbit, its solar panels and radar antennas smoothly opened up in the vacuum of space. Its solar panels and two-dimensional scanning radar-phased array antennas spread seamlessly in space, signaling the mission’s success. SmartSat-2A is equipped with cutting-edge capabilities. Weighing over 200 kilograms, this satellite is fitted with X-band SAR payloads. It is set to deliver high-resolution images of the Earth’s surface under any weather conditions, day or night. This capability is critical for various applications, including environmental monitoring and national security.

A key player in the field of 3D printing in China, BLT specializes in producing complex metal parts. The company’s expertise spans various sectors, including aerospace, automotive, and medical devices. Among its most famous projects is the contribution to China’s aerospace ambitions and major automotive manufacturers to produce lightweight and durable parts for better vehicle performance and efficiency. After over ten years in the business, BLT has become the largest player in the metal 3D printing market, with a market cap of $2,28 billion on January 18, 2024. The company also has the largest factory equipped with 380 metal 3D printers and offers advanced materials, custom printing capabilities, and products in all market segments.

Hot on the heels of this achievement, BLT also created complex engine parts for LandSpace’s ZQ-3 rocket, which recently carried out a successful Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTVL) test with its prototype ZQ-3 rocket. For the ZQ-3, BLT used its BLT-S310 and BLT-S400 systems to manufacture intricate components within the engine, such as joint elements, igniter mounts, and complex internal structures.

BLT 3D printed parts for SmartSat-2A satellite. Image courtesy of BLT.

This satellite is one of the 12 SAR satellites that Smart Satellite aims to deploy in orbit by the end of this year. Established in 2018, the company has distinguished itself as the first in China to specialize in SAR satellites, boasting the capability to design these complex systems in-house. It also stands out as the nation’s first to own an integrated SAR design system for spaceborne applications and obtain the X-band radar satellite frequency rights after completing the network filing with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Marking a significant milestone, Smart Satellite launched its first satellite, SmartSat-1, on December 22, 2020, from Wenchang in Hainan province.

Several countries and organizations operate SAR satellites as part of their programs. SAR’s ability to provide high-resolution images of the Earth’s surface in all weather conditions makes the satellites necessary tools for applications like disaster response, military surveillance, and scientific research. For instance, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Sentinel-1 satellites provide crucial data for tracking natural disasters and climate change. Similarly, Canada’s RADARSAT satellites have been instrumental in maritime surveillance and ecosystem management. Japan’s ALOS-2 satellite contributes significantly to disaster response and urban planning. Meanwhile, Germany’s TerraSAR-X and Italy’s COSMO-SkyMed systems offer precision in Earth observation for scientific research and military applications.

Although China had already developed and deployed SAR satellites before the launch of the SmartSat-2A, the continuation of its SAR satellite programs is instrumental to efforts that enhance remote sensing capabilities for environmental protection, urban planning, road network design, crop yield estimation, disaster relief, and national defense missions.

BLT 3D printed parts for SmartSat-2A satellite. Image courtesy of BLT.

Considering the increase in spacecraft activity emerging from China, there’s an opportunity for BLT to contribute and innovate further within the sector. With its expertise in metal additive manufacturing, BLT is well-positioned to support the growing demands of the space industry. As China expands its presence in space, the need for high-quality, precisely engineered parts will only increase, offering companies like BLT plenty of opportunities to apply cutting-edge technology to future space projects.

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