3D Printing ProcessesAM for SpacePhotopolymer Resins

Freeform printing of satellite antennas in outer space

Mitsubishi Electric harnesses solar radiation for low-power 3D printing in vacuum

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Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, one of the world leaders in the manufacturing and sales of electrical and electronic products and systems, has developed an on-orbit additive manufacturing technology that uses photosensitive resin and solar ultraviolet light for freeform printing of satellite antennas in the vacuum of outer space.

Freeform printing of satellite antennas in outer space. Mitsubishi Electric harnesses solar radiation for low-power 3D printing in vacuum.
On-orbit manufacturing and deployment of a satellite antenna in space (from left)

The novel technology makes use of a newly developed liquid resin that was custom formulated for stability in vacuum. The resin enables structures to be fabricated in space using a low-power process that utilizes the sun’s ultraviolet rays for photopolymerization. The technology specifically addresses the challenge of equipping small, inexpensive spacecraft buses with large structures, such as high-gain antenna reflectors, and enables on-orbit fabrication of structures that greatly exceed the dimensions of launch vehicle fairings. Resin-based on-orbit manufacturing is expected to enable spacecraft structures to be made thinner and lighter than conventional designs, which must survive the stresses of launch and orbital insertion, thereby reducing both total satellite weight and launch costs.

Spacecraft antenna designs are challenging due to their conflicting requirements for high gain, wide bandwidth, and low weight. 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 Electric’s innovative approach – resin-based on-orbit manufacturing – efficiently realizes high-gain, wide-bandwidth, large-aperture antennas deployed from a lightweight, vibration-resistant launch package. By developing a 3D printer that extrudes a custom ultraviolet-curable resin formulated for vacuum, resin-based low-power freeform (without requiring auxiliary support structures) additive manufacturing in space has now become possible.

Another, recent, additive manufacturing-related update from Mitsubishi Electric includes the launch of two new models of the company’s Z600 digital wire-laser metal 3D printer, that print by melting welding wire, instead of powder, with a laser beam to create high-quality 3D structures.

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Edward Wakefield

Edward is a freelance writer and additive manufacturing enthusiast looking to make AM more accessible and understandable.

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