The miracle that is 3D printing has now extended its reach all the way into outer space.
A pair of massive 3D-printed metal parts—antenna supports for two South Korean satellites—will soon take flight thanks to a successful collaboration between French aerospace company Thales Alenia Space and Poly-Shape SAS, a French manufacturing company specializing in laser sintering.
The vast aluminum antenna pieces will facilitate communication for South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Japan, Indochina, Korea, and the Middle East when the satellites, the Koreasat-5A and 7, launch into orbit next year.
These satellite supports, which measure around 45 x 40 x 21 cm each, weigh less than 2.5 lbs each. That’s an impressive 22% lighter than anything in prior operation, printed without the benefit of additive manufacturing. Because it’s expensive to put anything into outer space (a rule of thumb suggests every 2.2 lbs launched heavenward costs about $22,000), this distinction is critical.
The antenna parts were printed using a technique called “powder bed-based laser melting” on a unique 3D printer, the Concept Laser X line 1000R. This huge printer was chosen, quite simply, because it’s the only one big enough to undertake such a project. The Concept Laser X line 1000R boasts a build volume of 630 x 400 x 500 mm.
These 3D marvels—the largest 3D-printed parts ever made in Europe—are predicted to enjoy a long and useful life, since satellites routinely stay in active service for decades. Coupled with the advent of 3D-printed tools being manufactured in space, the innovation that distinguishes them marks a new era for a still-fledgling but enormously promising paradigm shift in metal manufacturing.