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3D-printed satellite supports are enormous, yet incredibly lightweight

Europe’s two largest qualified 3D-printed metal parts have been successfully created thanks to a collaboration between French aerospace company Thales Alenia Space and Poly-Shape SAS.

The massive pieces are aluminum antenna supports for two South Korean satellites, which between them will provide communications for South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Japan, Indochina, Korea, and the Middle East. Both satellites, the Koreasat-5A and 7, are set to launch into orbit next year.

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The 3D-printed antenna supports measure around 45 x 40 x 21 cm each. They were printed using a technique called “powder bed-based laser melting,” on a 3D printer called the Concept Laser X line 1000R. Boasting a build volume of 630 x 400 x 500 mm, this printer was considered the only one big enough to allow the parts to be printed. “There are currently no other alternatives, unless you use smaller build envelopes and then join the parts together,” said Stéphane Abed, CEO of Poly-Shape.

The size isn’t the only impressive thing about the pieces, though. They also weigh less than 2.5 lbs — which is a whole 22 percent lighter than previous comparable pieces, not printed with additive manufacturing.

“As a rule of thumb, the actual costs of putting 1 kg (2.2 lbs) into orbit are around 20,000 euros ($22,000),” said Florence Montredon, Head of AM at Thales Alenia Space. “So every gram really does count.”

The pieces are likely to have a long shelf life, since satellites routinely stay in active service for decades. As a result, they have to undergo a rigorous strength-testing process — since any potential failure would cost millions of dollars once they’re installed.

With the first 3D-printed tools now being manufactured in space — and even 3D bioprinting taking some giant leaps forward outside of Earth’s gravitational pull — it seems that 2016 is turning out to be a big year for 3D printing in the stars. When it comes to size, though, it may be a while before too many other pieces can match these giant satellite supports.

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