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Credit: ESA–G. Porter

This week, the Miles Team Weekly Topic rotation once again revisits the topic of communication in out four topic rotation on subject matter relevant to the NASA Cube Quest Challenge.
Earlier in the course of this NASA contest, one of the first candidate-competitor teams that Miles Team looked at emulating was a team called Print-The-Bus. Print-the-Bus sought to maximize its fuel carrying capacity by metal printing a hollow bus structure that fully utilized all available space, however irregularly shaped, that doubled as a fuel tank. With this novel concept, Print-the-Bus’s Kickstarter page showcased an incredible amount of detail and test simulation in attempts to get the project funded.

Even without the NASA EM-1 launch cost and canisterized-deployer covered, a team needs about half a million to a million dollars to do the prerequisite testing and build of the cube sat, not including labor costs of the team’s staff and engineers. Sadly, after disappointing Kickstarter results, Print-the-Bus discontinued operations but their 3D printing for space applications trend was hardly over. That brings us to this week’s topic, the European Space Agency and their work into 3D printing a compact, “all-in-one” space antenna.

Next week we will start a new cycle and return to discussing a topic related to the competitors in the challenge.

Communications in space is one of the two most important aspects of space missions. The other critical aspect being that you need to get to your destination safely and survive to your intended mission duration. If the mission is an exploration mission, then you want to be able to communicate your findings back to Earth. If you are a communications satellite in LEO or GEO, then your life is just about communications. The further from Earth you are, the more powerful a communications system is required. To say it another way, you need to be “loud” enough to be heard on back at home base, and a “louder” voice requires more energy.

Precision in the production of the instrumentation and how the system produces and interacts with the signal is a vital component of successful communication with the spacecraft. The transmitter must produce the right encoded signal and the transmit antenna must send it in the right general direction. Conversely, on the receive end, the receive antenna and receiver needs to be constructed precisely so it can successfully collect the inbound signal, decode it, and to repair/fill-in any loss in the signal. To obtain this level of required precision is precisely why communications devices and experts command such a heavy price and so much attention.

Just as with Print-the-Bus, a Swiss company, SWISSto12, announced they were testing an entirely 3d-printed small space antenna at the European Space Agency’s Compact Antenna Test Facility. The antenna pictured in the featured image of this article shows that this compact antenna has a corrugated feed horn with two reflectors. Maarten van der Vorst, the engineer who designed the antenna, indicated that the antenna was printed with an all-in-one polymer and then plated with copper to meet its radio-frequency performance requirements. Maarten van der Vorst plans to design and print different shapes that will target the higher frequencies but for now, the Swiss team is focused on testing performance in the RF-absorbing, foam-lined chambers that simulate infinite space, as is pictured in both images in this article. By 3d printing the antenna in a single piece, any source of assembly misalignments / errors are removed, which allowed for such successful test results and to boast of a lower manufacturing cost than the traditional space mission antennae.

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Maarten van der Vorst acknowledges that he has a long way to go to before his team’s ideas become space qualified however successfully they are performing now. Our sympathies and encouragement go out to his team because pushing the boundaries of space technology requires an incredible amount of homework and testing.

This path is the most rigorous and requirement-laden that a team can take in the NASA Cube Quest Challenge. We must prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, to the NASA judges and safety committee, with the necessary documentation and testing, that our new technology does not pose a risk to the launch provider or other payloads and has a certain probability of succeeding in its objective in space. Best of luck to Maarten and team! We hope that their technology will help us in our future missions.

Please check out the stunning virtual tour of the European Space Agency’s Test Center here! http://esamultimedia.esa.int/multimedia/ESTEC/virtualtour/


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