CubeSat Challenge Gives Satellites a Cost-Effective 3D Printed Makeover

09/09/2015 - 06:31

Kayla Matthews | @productibytes

The CubeSat Challenge drew in more than 200 engineers from all around the world, competing to see who would create the next leap forward in satellite design. After a month of entries and deliberation, a winner has now been selected. Paolo Minetola of Italy took first place with an innovative design called FoldSat that can only be created through the unique capabilities of 3-D printing.

The CubeSat challenge was created by Stratasys, a 3-D printing and additive manufacturing company. It was meant to discover ways in which 3-D printing can improve the production process for satellite structures. The contest was held on GrabCAD, a collaboration platform for mechanical engineers. Participants were tasked with creating a new structural design for a CubeSat. Each CubeSat is a 10-centemeter cube created to be a standardized, low-cost satellite frame.

Originally intended to allow universities to send projects to space for research purposes, the concept has since been adopted for commercial use. With low cost as a key component of CubeSat design, 3-D printing could provide a means to reduce costs even further without compromising build quality.

Winning Designs

FoldSat gained an edge over the competition in two ways. First, it was designed from the ground up using additive manufacturing in mind, taking advantage of the unique features of 3-D printing and avoiding the technology’s weak points. The design also preserves the features of current CubeSats, including PCB mounting slots. These rails, located on the interior of the cube, make it easy to mount electronic components on the frame. Minetola even added features to make maintenance easier. After being assembled, one side of the structure can swing open to allow access to the interior. In total, his design received 45 out of a possible 50 points.

In second place was David Franklin's STRATASATT - FDM ONE, who created a concept focused on customization. He even demonstrated the capabilities of his design by incorporating it with a number of real CubeSat components. Third place went to Chris Esser, who focused more on the manufacturing process. His design was intended to streamline production even further, and included cost and materials analysis.

The CubeSat Challenge featured an impressive panel of judges. Among them were Dr. Jordi Puig-Suari, co-inventor of the CubeSat, and Jonathan Cook, Spaceflight Industries mission manager.

Better and Cheaper

At the moment, each CubeSat’s structure can use up to 50 different parts. This makes for a complicated and lengthy manufacturing process. In contrast, Minetola’s FoldSat uses only two parts, reducing production time by an estimated 40 percent. Each part features three hinged panels, and the two halves snap together through a simple interlocking mechanism.

Manufacturing satellite components is tricky business. Boeing satellite systems have even used air compressors to inflate balloons used to transport components while absorbing vibrations. If even one of the 50 different parts in a traditional CubeSat structure fails, it could cause damage to these fragile components. Reducing the number of parts using 3-D printing reduces the number of potential failure points.

Part of the push for improving CubeSat technology comes from their use in NASA’s upcoming Insight mission, scheduled for March 2016. Two CubeSats, dubbed MarCO A and B, will communicate with Insight during atmospheric entry and landing. Those communications will be relayed to NASA, providing valuable information about the most treacherous part of the mission. The mission also serves as a demonstration of small satellites as communication relays, a concept which could become more valuable as we continue to explore other planets in our solar system. MarCO A and B will be the first CubeSats to operate beyond Earth’s orbit.

If 3-D printing CubeSat frames proves to be as effective in reality as it seems to be on paper, the cost of putting a satellite into orbit could reach a new low. This would make it easier than ever for scientists and educators to perform research in the unique environment of outer space.