Can 3D printers make a satellite

Satellites from the 3D printer - a vision becomes reality

We notice every day how indispensable satellites have become for our daily lives. Starting with earth observation applications for forecasting the weather to navigation and communication applications, the use of satellites has become indispensable. Especially in the context of Industry 4.0, innovative, satellite-supported applications are of great interest. In order to advance developments and applications in satellite technology even faster than before, the use of so-called small satellites represents enormous potential. Nano and microsatellites with masses between 10 kg and 100 kg are of particular interest. In contrast to the development of standard satellites with masses of several hundred kilograms or more, which typically require many years of development time, small satellites can be realized in a fraction of the time. This results in a significantly faster innovation cycle.


3D printing as a manufacturing technology

The further development of additive manufacturing processes from use in prototypes to manufacturing technology for end products enables enormous development opportunities. For example, completely new designs can be created that are no longer subject to the restrictions of conventional manufacturing processes. In addition, assembly steps can be reduced by integrating several components in just one component. Since additive manufacturing only generates material where it is needed, there is a high potential for resource savings as an additional added value.


ERNST as a technology driver

ERNST is a 15 kilogram, shoebox-sized nanosatellite with an infrared camera as its main payload for earth observation. ERNST stands for E.experimental R.Avoidance application based on NanoS.atellitesTtechnology. When developing the ERNST nanosatellite at Fraunhofer EMI, the so-called “selective laser melting” (SLM) method was used for additive manufacturing of the optical bench. With this technology, highly complex metallic component structures can be manufactured and then installed in the satellite. The special thing about the additively manufactured optical bench is its design. With the help of a multidisciplinary design optimization, a structure was found which is optimally matched to the mechanical and thermal loads occurring during start-up and during the operating phase and which also integrates various functions in just one structure. Additive manufacturing processes are therefore of great importance, especially for space travel: Highly specialized and individualized lightweight components with completely new shapes enable the integration of additional functions in the smallest of spaces.

With the planned start of ERNST in 2021, an additively manufactured metallic structure will fly on a nanosatellite of this size for the first time.