3D printing satellites in outer space could be on its way
The technology is available but the ability to print complex structures cost-effectively needs to be proved
3D printing satellites in outer space might sound like the stuff of sci-fi movies, but that's exactly where the aerospace industry's biggest players are heading.
More than just a cool gimmick, 3D printing could help save companies money when launching satellites into space by building parts of them there.
"If you think of challenges in getting a satellite into orbit, if you think of major antennas, the fold out antennas we have, the ability to print something in space and deploy it from space is really interesting," Andy Anderson, deputy chief technology officer at Airbus, said at the Farnborough air show in the UK on Monday.
3D printing uses powdered materials which then go through a machine and are "printed" to become the object. Anderson said it's easier to transfer a bag of powder to space than it is a whole satellite.
Anderson's comments reflect a trend in the aerospace industry towards 3D printing in a number of different areas.
Airbus recently showed off a fully 3D printed drone as well as a component of an aeroplane that had been made using that process.
And in April, a company called Made In Space installed the first ever manufacturing facility in space on the International Space Station. It uses 3D printing specifically designed for the zero-gravity conditions in space. The European Space Agency is also testing out 3D printing of satellite components.
Anderson said that the technology is available but the ability to print complex structures in a cost-efficient way in space still needs to be proved.
"The fact we can print in space has been proved, it's more how do we design structures and what is the process of then printing them and testing them to see how they are done in space to make sure they work. It's still a long way off, but certainly the journey has started," Anderson said.
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