Scholar engineers design groundbreaking 3D printers for antenna building

Engineering students at the Munich University of Applied Sciences have developed a new type of 3D printer that can be used to manufacture satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

The team’s extrusion-based system, built as part of the AMIS-FYT project, was developed for building solar panels or antennas under zero gravity conditions. The new machine may reduce the need to launch heavy machinery into space, save resources while allowing more fuel to be transported, thereby lengthening future missions.

“With satellites, fuel is usually the limiting factor and currently lasts around 15 years,” said Torben Schäfer, press spokesman for the AIMIS-FYT team. “With our 3D printing process, three-dimensional structures can be printed directly in space with a UV-curing adhesive or a potting compound.”

The advantages of 3D orbital printing

Normally, spaceships are designed, tested and assembled on Earth before they are launched into space via a launcher to where they are to be used. Even satellite parts like 3D printed waveguides or additively manufactured heat exchangers with clear space applications are constructed here and then put into orbit by a commercial carrier.

While building equipment on firm ground is more convenient than in LEO, it does require that every component be upgraded so that it can withstand the stresses and strains of the first launch. However, these larger volume parts take up valuable space on board their launch shuttles, reducing the amount of fuel that can be carried, and increasing mission costs.

To counteract this, the students at the University of Munich have developed a new type of 3D printer that can be used to manufacture aerospace components in orbit without having to be fully transported. Gravity-free manufacturing also has other potential benefits as additively manufactured parts don’t need to meet launch durability requirements, so they can be tailored to the needs of their mission.

The AIMIS team (picture) would like to use its new 3D printer in future space missions. Photo via AIMIS-FYT.

Manufacture of antennas in zero-g

Like many conventional 3D printers, the team’s system also has a photopolymer extruder. Instead of creating parts in layers, the new system creates them with just the movement of the printhead. By extruding directly into space, the machine can make complex objects without the need for support structures or even a fixed anchor point like a pressure plate.

To demonstrate the capabilities of their printer, the engineers 3D printed a number of differently shaped rods under zero gravity conditions. During the tests, the team used a high-resolution IDS special camera with which the progress of the nozzle could be closely monitored despite the difficult lighting conditions that were simulated in LEO.

“Since a parabolic flight is weightless for only 20 seconds, we only save the most important information,” explained Schäfer. “With the help of the IDS, we were able to integrate the camera seamlessly into our surveillance system. This live feed made it easier for us to set up the printhead and analyze it quickly. “

After successful testing, the team believes that the system can either be used to manufacture optimized antenna mirrors or to assemble structures for solar generators. The engineers are particularly aimed at satellite manufacturers and distributors who can reduce their start-up and production costs by 3D printing parts in LEO.

In the future, the students now intend to further optimize their machine through weightless tests by the European Space Agency (ESA) in order to use it in space and to demonstrate its potential for end use in future missions.

On the move 3D printing in the aerospace industry

The potential efficiency benefits of 3D printing in LEO have led NASA to use the technology in various space applications in recent years.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) has contracted the KULR Technology Group to 3D print replacement battery packs en route to future space missions. With its Passive Propagation Resistant (PPR) and Internal Short Circuit (ISC) processes, the company builds the systems in such a way that they meet NASA’s high thermal safety standards.

Similarly, NASA installed the Refabricator 3D printer and recycling system from US aerospace company Tethers Unlimited Inc (TUI) on board the International Space Station (ISS). The machine was developed to give astronauts the opportunity to produce sustainable spare parts when needed during reconnaissance missions.

Made in Space also worked with NASA on board the ISS and announced plans to bring the Ceramic Manufacturing Module (CMM) to the orbital base in September 2020. The SLA 3D printer is expected to be the first of its kind to be used in LEO. and is used to develop the technology’s commercial applications.

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The picture shown shows the print head of the engineers’ new 3D orbital printer in action. Gif about AIMIS-FYT.

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