June 3, 2022
MERL's research on on-orbit manufacturing was recently featured in an IEEE Spectrum article. The article, titled How Satellites Will 3D Print Their Own Antennas in Space gives an overview of MERL's efforts towards developing a system that construct spacecraft parts in their natural environment-- that is, in space. The technology, called OOM for On-Orbit Manufacturing, provides a way to manufacture not just antenna dishes, but general freeform sturctures on orbit and in a vacuum, using an solar-hardened resin based approach. This technology includes both a special high performance liquid resin, as well as a 3D freeform printer capable of building objects far larger than the as-launched satellite.
An important aspect of the special resin is that all components have extremely low vapor pressures and do not boil away even in a vacuum. When exposed to solar ultraviolet, the resin hardens by polymerization crosslinking, forming a tough, rigid solid in a few seconds of exposure. No separate UV source is needed, making the entire process very energy efficient. Additionally, the crosslinking resin is heat resistant, and is unaffected to at least 400 degrees C. The 3D printer needed to print the resin is unlike common liquid-resin SLA printers- there is no vat of liquid resin, instead a shielded nozzle delivers the liquid resin directly to where the resin is needed. The result is the ability to construct large and very large structures, not just parabolic dishes, but also solar panel supports and structural trusswork, while in orbit. The system could even construct parts that were unanticipated during mission design and launch.
MERL's On-Orbit Manufacturing Technology had previously been featured in a Mitsubishi Electric Corporation Press Release and was recently on display at a recent press exhibition in Tokyo, Japan.
IEEE Spectrum is the flagship magazine and website of the IEEE, the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and the applied sciences. IEEE Spectrum has a circulation of over 400,000 engineers worldwide, making it one of the leading science and engineering magazines.