Lockheed Martin recently announced it qualified its first complex 3D printed antenna for space flight. The omni directional antenna will be used for communications relays between it and Earth, and the antenna will be an integral part for the upcoming GPS III Space Vehicle 10. This comes at a time when space and defense companies are investing heavily into additive manufacturing (AM) and with the benefits Lockheed has seen building this antenna, they may apply it to making other parts sooner rather than later.
Lockheed sees the potential of AM and has been implementing it across its company, including for electronics. One example is Fortify, an additive manufacturing startup specializing in developing materials and production processes for printed electronics. After Lockheed invested in the company, they saw its products implemented in four different business units under the Lockheed Martin umbrella to build 3D printed components.
However, 3D printing a part versus having a flight-ready component are two different things. Lockheed needed to know every part of its satellites will work in orbit— even the AM ones. That’s why the team at Lockheed has been diligently testing the antenna to ensure it meets all qualification standards.
They did a complete shake down of the antenna and tested everything from the production process to temperature and shake tests. These experiments took roughly 8 years from the first prototype, but now with a green-lit method, Lockheed has a production line that can produce antennas with specified/complex geometries, reduces the defects typically seen with welding, and saves 60% of the cost when compared to traditional manufacturing.
“The process is easily repeatable, which cuts out variabilities in the build and test process,” said Larry Loh, director of engineering technology and advanced manufacturing at Lockheed Martin Space. “By adopting this technology, we’re able to produce these products within a tighter range than previously hand built parts.”
The 3D printed antennas will be incorporated into GPS III satellites which are set to launch in 2026. These satellites will be an upgraded version of the previous satellites and give new search and rescue features, more accurate laser retroreflector array, and 60x greater anti-jamming capabilities which would provide GPS even in hostile environments.
“This is the pathfinder for increasing our speed to production of both simple components, like brackets, as well as complex hardware builds,” said Andre Trotter, vice president of Lockheed Martin Space Navigation Systems. “The big thing is that we can reduce that production timeline upfront. The more hardware we 3D-print, the more we can shrink that upfront time and then we can just assemble, test and launch.”
Lockheed already has plans to print more antennas for the next 10-20 satellites, and are actively exploring how it could be added to other spacecrafts in the future. It’s exciting to see 3D printing playing a vital role in the defense space, and how efficient it makes the build-test-launch cycle. With the continued backing of upper management and Trotter, the company seems poised to continue its AM course for these satellites and more endeavors in the future.