Additive Manufacturing

A major component of our plan involves the utilization of additive manufacturing, more commonly referred to as “3D printing”. 3D printing is presently a hot topic and gaining populatiry exponentially. The technology holds the tantalizing promise of allowing the user to create almost any object from raw material, and sometimes at less cost than purchasing something equivalent off the shelf.

(Above: A typical 3D printer. Image Credit: Printrbot)

Not surprisingly, AM has the attention of the aerospace community with interest coming from small private groups all the way to NASA. Recently, the first 3D printer was installed onboard the International Space Station for reasearch into the feasibility of building tools and other hardware on-the-fly in microgravity. This would be valuable on long-duration spaceflights into deep space when it may be impossible to carry all of the tools and equipment that might be needed, especially in an emergency.

On Earth, additive manufacturing is being leveraged in the application of rapid prototyping. Since components can be manufactured quickly at reasonable cost, it is possible for individuals and small businesses to use agile development to create a design, tweak it, assemble and test a prototype, tweat the design more and repeat the process until a final design is achieved. The final product can them be manufactured using more precise methods or expensive materials. Using 3D printing results in a faster and lower-cost development cycle  which, in turn, reduces the time for a project to reach production while maintaining high reliability.

Our ultimate objective is to be able to 3D print flight-worthy cubesat structures. However, at this early stage, we will be utilizing the technology for prototyping and testing. To begin, we have purchased a relatively inexpensive 3D printer. This will allow us to build the first cubesat prototypes and conduct early testing of configuration options. We will also use it to create some of the components for our second printer which will be assembled completely in-house. This second printer is being designed to use metal as the print material rather than more commonly used ABS or PLA plastic materials.

The models built using these printers will be relatively low-fidelity. However, they will be sufficient for mounting hardware and payloads for testing. We’ll be using these low-fidelity functional mockups in balloon and/or suborbital rocket test flights so that we can do such things as test sail deployment mechanisms in a microgravity environment before we build the actual spacecraft.

We plan on conducting at least two high-altitude balloon flights, each one culminating in dropping the cubesat prototype in order to simulate micro-gravity. The prototypes will likely not be recovered intact, which is where 3D printing really shows its value. After balloon tests, we may conduct a suborbital “sounding” rocket flight of prototype hardware, although that is not a requirement at this stage.

In the end, we hope to have a viable metal-based 3D printer design and space-worthy cubesat/payload carrier design that anyone will be able to build themselves at very low cost using the 3D printer of our design.

The ultimate goal is to enable individuals, academic institutions, non-profit and really anyone who wants to sustain a program of cubesat missions to be able to 3D print cubesat structures on an as-needed basis one after the other, modifying the design where and when necessary.