Satellites are essential in providing internet to remote locations where Earth-based service networks can't provide wireless communications. In these areas that lack coverage, internet access can be prohibitively expensive, used mainly by the military and industry.
One space company, Fleet Space Technologies, has developed satellites so small, powerful, and affordable that worldwide internet connection via satellite may soon be a reality.
The Australia-based start-up plans to connect billions of devices using constellations of low-earth-orbit nanosatellites equipped with sophisticated communication technology. “It is Fleet Space’s vision that everyone, everywhere, has access to unlimited connectivity, no matter where they are on the globe, in cities, remote regions, on land, or navigating the oceans,” the company says.
Why are these satellites groundbreaking? 3D printing.
Lightweight, Powerful Tech From the 3D Printer
In December, Fleet Space announced that they were developing a new constellation of satellites named Alpha, which will work in harmony with their existing Centauri constellation already in orbit. Alpha represents a major step forward in satellite technology, the company says, and the first time a satellite has been created entirely through 3D printing.
The Alpha satellites feature an array of up to 64 3D printed all-metal antennas that will boost the constellation’s performance 16-fold over the Centauri, while being only four times heavier.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that additive manufacturing technology can offer some amazing benefits for 3D printed antennas for space applications,” Fleet Space Technologies said on Twitter. “This offers features such as fast prototyping, low fabrication cost, and the ability to fabricate unique and complex structures that would otherwise be impossible with conventional methods.”
Fleet Space is manufacturing these antennas on DMP Flex 350 3D printers from 3D Systems. The space company collaborated with 3D Systems’ Application Innovation Group to architect a complete additive manufacturing solution that Fleet would manage entirely in-house, from process development and bridge production to small batch production. Recently, the engineering team achieved 55 antennas per build on the DMP Flex 350.
Fleet Space Technologies’ engineering team designed the antenna for additive manufacturing to meet size, weight, and performance requirements while minimizing the need for post-processing. 3D Systems developed the 3D print processes to produce the aluminum-alloy antennas (in AlSi10Mg and Al6061-RAM2) using the DMP Flex 350’s argon gas vacuum chamber architecture to produce a good surface finish with the fine feature detail that minimizes signal loss.
“Our work with Fleet Space Technologies is yet another example of how 3D Systems helps our aerospace customers accelerate innovation and de-risk their additive manufacturing application development,” says Dr. Michael Shepard, vice president, aerospace & defense segment, 3D Systems. “In this case, we’ve been able to help Fleet Space Technologies bring a qualified production process for their satellite hardware in-house in a very short amount of time.” Fleet plans to launch the first of it’s Alpha satellites in early 2023, just 12 months after the project began.
In addition to the antennas, Alpha satalites will feature 3D printed radiation shielding to prolong the satellite’s lifespan. This shielding, provided by another Australian start-up Titomic, is a 3D printing process called cold spray, which enables the deposition and fusion of dissimilar metals.
Satellites to Enable Mining Exploration from Space
The first project that will employ the Alpha satellites operating in a constellation is Fleet Space Technologies’ ExoSphere initiative for mining exploration from space with minimal environmental impact.
Fleet’s system combines wireless Geodes, cloud processing, and a constellation of Alpha satellites to discover critical resources up to 100 times faster than traditional methods, the company says. This approach drastically reduces the requirement for environmentally damaging surveyance practices, such as the use of explosives, noise machines, and drilling.
“Fleet’s Alpha constellation represents a significant leap forward in our mission to unlock the potential of truly global connectivity, in doing so creating global benefits for applications like making the search for critical minerals more sustainable and viable,” said Flavia Tata Nardini, Fleet Space Technologies’ founder and CEO. “To achieve this, we constantly strive to find more ways to manufacture our technology to deliver exceptional quality at scale and in a way that is economically viable.”