(ORDO NEWS) — Satellite dishes can be 3D printed in space using sunlight using a new patented method that promises to get rid of the bulky parts of satellites taking up too much space in a rocket.
The new method, developed by Japanese technology company Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, uses a special type of resin that turns into a solid material when exposed to ultraviolet radiation from the sun, which is present in space.
So far, the company has only demonstrated how the technology works under space-like conditions in a test chamber. Mitsubishi researchers printed a 16.5 cm wide antenna that performed just as well in tests as a conventional satellite dish.
The sensitivity of antennas is directly related to their size; the larger the antenna, the better it picks up and transmits the signal. But size is a problem when launching into orbit, as a large antenna takes up a lot of space in the rocket fairing.
The antennas also need to be strong to withstand the vibrations during launch, which makes them heavy. And the heavier the satellite, the more expensive its launch.
Components 3D printed in space can be much lighter and thinner as they don’t have to withstand the vibrations at startup.
Thus, by 3D printing antennas directly in space, operators will not only save money as their satellites become lighter, but will also be able to equip much smaller satellites with much larger antennas than today.
The technology, the company said in an emailed statement, paves the way for “3D printing very large structures in space” that won’t fit in a rocket fairing at all.
The photosensitive resin is also heat resistant and can withstand temperatures up to 400 degrees Celsius, which is higher than what spacecraft experience in Earth orbit.
“Designing antennas for spacecraft is challenging due to conflicting requirements for high gain, wide bandwidth and low weight,” the company said in a statement.
“High gain and wide bandwidth necessarily require a large aperture, but economical in-orbit deployment has traditionally dictated that designs be lightweight and small enough to fit or fold inside a launch vehicle or satellite deployment mechanism.”
The company added that its resin is the first resin suitable for vacuum use because it does not require atmospheric oxygen to prevent it from curing too quickly. And using natural UV light reduces the power consumption of the 3D printer, Mitsubishi added.
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