Here is some bright shining proof that big things are happening in the small satellite industry: A for fuel tanks that Lockheed Martin is using in a major U.S. satellite program.
Engineers finished testing the 4-foot-diameter cap this month, ending a multi-year development program. Two domes will seal giant, high-pressure tanks that carry satellite fuel. The company will now offer the tank as a standard option for its LM 2100 satellite buses.
Engineers made these caps with 3D printing, a technique that's becoming increasingly common inside aerospace companies. Lockheed has made thousands of flight components this way because it slashes time and expense from tooling and R&D prototyping. But as these giant companies get more comfortable with 3D printing, the tech is becoming a game-changer for manufacturing parts.
Previously, the largest 3D-printed spacecraft part was the size of a toaster. Now Lockheed is making huge pieces of titanium this way. “Our largest 3D printed parts to date show we’re committed to a future where we produce satellites twice as fast and at half the cost,” said Rick Ambrose, Lockheed Martin Space executive vice president.
Titanium is lightweight and strong, making it an ideal material for spacecraft. But because the process is so new and unrefined,using it also adds time and money: Lockheed says that traditional manufacturing techniques led to more than 80 percent of the material going to waste while making the sat domes.
“We self-funded this design and qualification effort as an investment in helping our customers move faster and save costs,” Ambrose says. “These tanks are part of a total transformation in the way we design and deliver space technology.” He says the delivery time has dropped from two years to three months.
New manufacturing technologies don’t count for much if nobody uses them. But the rise of 3D printing is happening in tandem with access to orbit becoming much more attainable, triggering a sea change in the launch industry that's only going to continue.