Dec 17, 2012

3D printed satellites

There were some articles floating around on 3d printing satellites but they lacked in many details, so I compiled some material on current state-of-play in the field. This post will be continuously updated with new developments.

Most of the 3d printing is related to Cubesat satellites. They are small (10X10X10 cm) picosatellites that are launched as auxiliary cargo on regular big scale launches.

3d printing is used in design / development phase or for printing working satellites support structure.

There is a full-scale model of ArduSat on Thingiverse:

Naval Graduate School conducted crash tests and released a paper "Direct Manufacturing of CubeSat Using 3-D Digital Printer and Determination of Its Mechanical Properties" for DARPA. Check links for much more details and videos.

Cubesat design specifications: 

Thesis on the feasibility of 3d printing Cubesat satellites:

From the summary of the study:

This study has found that a CubeSat can be developed to successfully incorporate the use of 3D printing manufacturing techniques into its design. This technology provides a potential cost savings of thousands of dollars, even for structures that would be simple to machine. Additional cost savings would be seen for very complex structures that would require advanced machining technology such as Electrical Discharge Machining to produce with aluminum. Using a Tyvak Nanosatellite Systems Intrepid system board at a cost of $3195  for the satellite avionics, it is conceivable that all the flight hardware for a CubeSat with a 3D printed structure could be procured for less than $5000. Not only do these materials provide the necessary strength to survive the rigorous testing and launch environments at a lower cost than machined aluminum, but they allow developers to be more creative with their satellites. Without any limitations from machinability, parts can be produced as they are imagined and new levels of optimization and functionality can be achieved. Further, extremely complex shapes, and even working mechanisms can be produced with 3D printing processes that cannot be manufactured with conventional machining. This allows designers create parts that require no post processing or assembly, streamlining the entire production process.

The university of Texas at El Paso’s W. M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation made advancements in 3d printed satellite sensors for their Trailblazer cubesat project (link).

Students of Montana State University plan to launch their amateur radio satellite PrintSat with nano carbon impregnated plastic by using a 3D printer. 

Looks like the future of space exploration is 3d printed. :-)

Let me know if there are some other interesting projects in this area.

Update (12.5.2014.):

KySat2 Cubsat was developed and launched with 3d printed parts.

More details at:

Update (8.8.2014.):

NASA is developing 3d printed nanosatellite telescopic camera:

Update (23.11.2014.):

RedEye (a Stratasys company) in cooperation with JPL 3d printed functional antenna array for a satellite.

From the source:
Due to COSMIC-1’s success, U.S. agencies and Taiwan have been working on a follow-up project called FORMOSAT-7/COSMIC-2 that will launch six satellites into orbit in late 2016 and another six in 2018. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has developed satellite technology to capture a revolutionary amount of radio occultation data from GPS and GLONASS that will benefit weather prediction models and research for years to come.
COSMIC-2 design and development began in 2011 at JPL. Critical components of the COSMIC-2 design are the actively steered, multi-beam, high gain phased antenna arrays capable of receiving the radio occultation soundings from space. The amount of science the COSMIC-2 can deliver is dependent on the custom antenna arrays. Traditionally, only large projects could afford custom antennas. COSMIC-2 was a medium size project that required 30 antennas so minimizing manufacturing costs and assembly time was essential.
A standard antenna array support design is traditionally machined out of astroquartz, an advanced composite material certified for outer space. The team knew building custom antenna arrays out of astroquartz would be time consuming and expensive because of overall manufacturing process costs (vacuum forming over a custom mold) and lack of adjustability (copper sheets are permanently glued between layers of astroquartz). The custom antenna design also contained complex geometries that would be difficult to machine and require multiple manufacturing, assembly and secondary operations, causing launch delays. JPL decided to turn to additive manufacturing technology to prototype and produce the antenna arrays.
The manufacturing chosen to build accurate, lightweight parts while maintaining the strength and load requirements for launch conditions was Stratasys’ Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). FDM could produce this complete structure as a single, ready-for-assembly piece. This would enable quick production of several prototypes for functional testing and the flight models for final spacecraft integration all at a low cost. FDM can also build in ULTEM 9085, a high strength engineering-grade thermoplastic, which has excellent radio frequency and structural properties, high temperature and chemical resistance and could be qualified for spaceflight.
Instead of purchasing an FDM machine to produce the parts internally, JPL turned to RedEye, one of Stratasys’ additive manufacturing service centers with the largest FDM capacity in the world and project engineering experts who have experience with the aerospace industry and its requirements.
The antenna array support structures were optimized and patented for the FDM process. All shapes were designed with an “overhead angle” of 45 degrees at most to avoid using break-away ULTEM support material during the build. “Designing the antennas with self-supporting angles helped with two things,” said Trevor Stolhanske, aerospace and defense project engineer at RedEye, “it reduced machine run time so that parts printed faster, and reduced the risk of breaking any parts during manual support removal.” JPL was also able to combine multiple components into one part, which minimized technician assembly and dimensions verification time and costs.
Although FDM ULTEM 9085 has been tested for in-flight components, it had never been used on the exterior of an aircraft, let alone in space. Therefore, in addition to standard functional testing (i.e. antenna beam pattern, efficiency, and impedance match), FDM ULTEM 9085 and the parts had to go through further testing in order to meet NASA class B/B1 flight hardware requirements.
Some of these tests included:
  • Susceptibility to UV radiation
  • Susceptibility to atomic oxygen
  • Outgassing (CVCM index was measured to be 0 percent)
  • Thermal properties tests – in particular, compatibility with aluminum panels. (Aluminum has a slightly different coefficient of thermal expansion than non-glass-filled ULTEM)
  • Vibration / Acoustic loads standard to the launch rocket
  • Compatibility with S13G white paint and associated primer
ULTEM 9085’s properties met all required qualification tests, proving the antennas are space-worthy. However, the highly reactive oxygen atoms present at the operating height of the satellite could degrade the plastic. To protect against oxygen atoms and ultraviolet radiation, ULTEM was tested for compatibility and adhesion with some of NASA’s protective, astronautical paints. In this case, S13G high emissivity protective paint was chosen to form a glass-like layer on the plastic structure and reflect a high percentage of solar radiation, optimizing thermal control of the antenna operating conditions.
From March 2012 – April 2013, RedEye produced 30 antenna array structures for form, fit and function testing. Throughout each design revision, RedEye’s project engineering team worked closely with JPL to process their STL files to ensure the parts met exact tolerances and to minimize secondary operations. RedEye’s finishing department deburred the parts where needed, stamped each with an identification number and included a material test coupon. They also reamed holes for fasteners that attach to the aluminum honeycomb panel and the small channels throughout the cones to the precise conducting wire diameter.
“Not only did NASA JPL save time and money by producing these antenna arrays with FDM, they validated the technology and material for the exterior of a spacecraft, paving the way for future flight projects” said Joel Smith, strategic account manager for aerospace and defense at RedEye. “This is a great example of an innovative organization pushing 3D printing to the next level and changing the way things are designed.”
As of 2014, the COSMIC-2 radio occultation antennas and FDM ULTEM 9085 are at NASA Technology Readiness Level 6 (TRL-6). RedEye was able to successfully enter the JPL Approved Supplier List and delivered 30 complete antennas for final testing and integration. The launch of the initial six satellites is scheduled for 2016. Another constellation will launch in 2018. The FORMOSAT-7/COSMIC-2 mission will operate exterior, functional 3D printed parts in space for the first time in history.

Here is a video of phased array antenna being printed:

Source article:

Here is a picture of a satellite with the antenna being on lower right side of the spacecraft, shaped like a plate with 12 cylinders:

Update (26.1.2015.):

3d printed parts are also used in prototyping and final space going version of French CNES satellite EyeSat. Parts were printed by Sculpteo and parts probably going to space are sunvisor and four fixture elements.

Source and more information:

Update (20.3.2015.):

PrintTheBus is the first 3D printed aluminum CubeSat project that aims to get to lunar orbit with citizen experiments! They are competing in NASA's CubeQuest Challenge. Thy also started KS campaign:

Update: The KS project was canceled

Video from it republished by

Update (09.04.2015.):

I found this very interesting and informative paper "Printing Multi-Functionality: Additive Manufacturing for CubeSats" in PDF format:

Update (15.5.2015.):

Sciaky, major EBAM industrial 3d printer maker announced a partnership with Lockheed Martin to produce titanium propellant tanks for satellites. Because of the welding techniques implemented by the EBAM system, which allows for the size and speeds possible with the technology, intensive post-processing is necessary to bring parts to specification but the benefits are amazing.

Update (22.8.2015.):

Made In Space and NanoRacks want to 3d print cubesats in space.

Update (13.1.2016.):

NASA selected Aerojet Rocketdyne to mature 3D printed MPS-130 CubeSat propulsion system. Now we will have 3d printed satellites with 3d printed propulsion systems. 

System description:
MPS-130™ CubeSat High-Impulse Adaptable Modular Propulsion System (CHAMPS) is a 1U AF-M315E (low-toxicity propellant) propulsion system that provides both primary propulsion and 3-axis control capabilities in a single package. The system is designed for CubeSat customers needing significant ΔV capabilities including constellation deployment, orbit maintenance, attitude control, momentum management, and de-orbit.
  • Dimensions: 10 cm x 10 cm x 11.35 cm
  • Mass: <1.3 kg Dry, <1.6 kg Wet
  • Operational Temperature Range: +5°C to +50°C
  • Command Method: Digital or Discreet Analog 5V
  • Power Consumption: <TBD W Startup, <TBD W Operation
  • Operational Voltage: 5 V Nominal
  • BOL Thrust: TBD N (high thrust) to TBD N (low thrust) per thruster
  • Minimum Impulse Bit (at blowdown-averaged feed pressure): TBD to TBD N-sec per thruster

Company press release:

Update (17.2.2016.):

NASA will use a 3d printed bracket on their ICESat-2 made from Stratasys Polyetherketoneketone (PEKK). PEKK is a new material that can be used in space since it is resistant to extreme environments and electrostatically dissipative, preventing the static electricity build-up to protect sensitive electronics. The Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite-2 satellite will be launched in 2018.

NASA project homepage:

Update (05.03.2016.):

Made In Space, a company known for first NASA space-based 3d printer wants to 3d print satellite parts in orbit with their Archinaut technology.

3D printing satellite antenna reflectors in space 
Source and more information:

Update (17.03.2016.):

ESA is testing 3d printed antenna for future space applications. It is copper plated with a special process.

From the source:
A prototype 3D-printed antenna being put to work in ESA’s Compact Antenna Test Facility, a shielded chamber for antenna and radio-frequency testing.
“This is the Agency’s first 3D-printed dual-reflector antenna,” explains engineer Maarten van der Vorst, who designed it.
“Incorporating a corrugated feedhorn and two reflectors, it has been printed all-in-one in a polymer, then plated with copper to meet its radio-frequency (RF) performance requirements.
“Designed for future mega-constellation small satellite platforms, it would need further qualification to make it suitable for real space missions, but at this stage we’re most interested in the consequences on RF performance of the low-cost 3D-printing process.”
“Although the surface finish is rougher than for a traditionally manufactured antenna, we’re very happy with the resulting performance,” says antenna test engineer Luis Rolo.
“We have a very good agreement between the measurements and the simulations. Making a simulation based on a complete 3D model of the antenna leads to a significant increase in its accuracy.
“By using this same model to 3D print it in a single piece, any source of assembly misalignments and errors are removed, enabling such excellent results.”
Two different antennas were produced by Swiss company SWISSto12, employing a special copper-plating technique to coat the complex shapes.
“As a next step, we aim at more complex geometries and target higher frequencies,” adds Maarten, a member of ESA’s Electromagnetics & Space Environment Division. “And eventually we want to build space-qualified RF components for Earth observation and science instruments.”
Based at ESA’s ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, the test range is isolated from outside electromagnetic radiation while its inside walls are covered with ‘anechoic’ foam to absorb radio signals, simulating infinite space.


Update (15.04.2016.):

Tomsk Polytechnic University from Russia developed and 3d printed the hull of the micro-satellite "Tomsk-TPU-120" which will be deployed in space.

From the source:
Somewhere aboard Russia’s space vehicle Progress MS-02, among the 2.5 tonnes of cargo, is the 3D printed Tomsk-TPU-120 microsatellite, which was designed and manufactured by the Tomsk Polytechnic University. The cargo ship has just successfully separated from the Soyuz-2.1a space rocket, and is making its way to the ISS astronauts. The microsatellite is equipped with a 3D printed hull, while most of the other satellite parts and components were 3D printed in plastic material as well. The microsatellite, which measures just about 300 x 100 x 100 mm in size, also contains an electric battery unit, which reportedly has made use of 3D printing with zirconium for the first time ever. The microsatellite will also contain a number of sensors, which will record temperature fluctuation data from the satellite, as well as how its components function during these fluctuations, and send the data back down to Earth to help us better understand manufacturing for conditions in outer space.

Update (12.07.2016.):

Thales Alenia Space and Poly-Shape SAS have built Europe’s largest qualified 3D printed metal parts for satellites using a Concept Laser 3D printer which measure a  447 x 204.5 x 391 mm but weigh just 1.13 kg. The laser-sintered antenna supports, which took six days to print from AISi7Mg alloy, will be used on the Koreasat-5A and 7 satellites, due to go to into orbit in 2017. It is 20% lighter and 30% cheaper to manufacture compared to the standard process.


Lockheed will use high-end metal 3d printing to fabricate satellites 40% faster:

Update (12.05.2017.):

From the source:
Space Systems Loral announced March 7 that its most complex additively manufactured part, an antenna tower with 37 printed titanium nodes and more than 80 graphite struts, is performing as intended in orbit on SKY Perfect JSAT’s JCSAT-110A satellite launched in December.
“Our advanced antenna tower structures enable us to build high-performance satellites that would not be possible without tools such as 3D printing,” Matteo Genna, chief technology officer and vice president of product strategy and development at SSL, said in SSL’s announcement.
SSL is now using the same strut-truss design methodology on other satellites it is building. That includes 13 structures SSL is designing and manufacturing. SSL is putting hundreds of 3D printed titanium structural components on its satellites per year, according to the firm’s announcement.

Source and more info:

Thales will 3d print big satellite parts with multiple functions in one part:

Update (11.06.2017.):

Australia has first satellites in space after 15 years and they are cubesats made with 3d printed thermoplastic structure. UNSW-EC0 was deployed from the ISS from a Nanoracks launcher, a "cannon" that eject cubesats at a height of 380 km (the same as the ISS), allowing them to drift down to a lower orbit where they can begin their thermosphere measurements.

Here is the presentation video:

Source post:

Update (17.06.2017.):

Here is a nice example how LibreCAD and 3d printing were used in the development of cubesat that uses open source technologies. UPSat was successfully deployed in space.