A new in-orbit implementation of 3D printing technology could significantly reduce the costs of satellite launches.
Japanese technology firm Mitsubishi Electric Corporation developed a new solar-powered method for 3D printing satellite antennas in space, a press statement from the company reveals.
The new technique could reduce costs by removing the need to transport cumbersome parts that take up a lot of rocket space into orbit. As a point of reference, SpaceX typically charges about $1,200 per pound (0.45 Kg) of payload to reach low-Earth orbit.
Mitsubishi's method uses a unique "photosensitive resin" that reacts to the Sun's ultraviolet radiation, turning into a rigid solid material that's ideal for space.
Antennas are more sensitive the larger they are, meaning there is a significant limitation on the sensitivity of antennas in space due to the constraints of conventional satellite launch methods. They also have to be built to be sturdy enough to withstand the vibrations during launch without breaking, meaning they have to use heavier materials, driving up the launch cost for the satellite operator.
This means that parts that are 3D-printed in space can be much lighter and thinner than a traditional space antenna. In other words, operators will be able to launch satellites at a lower cost and with improved capabilities.
3D printing in space
Mitsubishi has only tested its material by simulating space-like conditions on Earth so far. The company's researchers say a 3D printed 6.5 inches (16.5 centimeters) wide antenna dish performed no differently from a traditional satellite antenna in their lab tests.
The photosensitive resin was also able to survive in temperatures of up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit (400 degrees Celsius) during tests, which means it would be suited to conditions in space. The Mitsubishi team also noted that its resin doesn't require atmospheric oxygen to prevent it from solidifying, another feature that makes it ideal for building satellite antennas. As it uses natural ultraviolet light, the company's 3D printer technology also consumes less power.
"Spacecraft antenna designs are challenging due to their conflicting requirements for high gain, wide bandwidth, and low weight," Mitsubishi announced. "High gain and wide bandwidth necessarily require a large aperture, but economical orbital deployment conventionally dictates that designs be lightweight and small enough to fit or fold inside a launch vehicle or satellite deployment mechanism."
Mitsubishi also claimed that, with its new technology, 'additive-manufacturing in space has now become possible.' However, it's worth noting that the International Space Station already features a 3D printer launched to the orbital station back in 2014. The European Space Agency also announced last year it would experiment with 3D printing in space using scrap metals from the Moon.
Still, the company's new method has the potential to reduce the cost of satellite launches significantly, and it could pave the way for the construction of other vital parts for future space missions.