Lockheed Martin, headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, USA, has qualified its first complex additively manufactured hardware for spaceflight. The teardrop-shaped omnidirectional antenna enables a satellite to communicate with ground systems on Earth, and has been integrated into a GPS III satellite.
The antenna is part of the spacecraft’s telemetry, tracking and command subsystem, which transmits and receives signals. The form of the AM omni antenna is similar to its predecessor but is now manufactured as a solid piece, rather than being made up of multiple parts that would need to be hand-soldered together.
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The new antenna also contains unique geometric features that can only be fabricated using Additive Manufacturing. Those features specifically contribute to defect reduction associated with the plating and soldering operations of the antenna’s predecessor.
“The process is easily repeatable, which cuts out variabilities in the build and test process,” stated 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.”
This Additive Manufacturing process is also much faster than previous production methods where one would have to procure materials, cut out parts, hand-solder hardware and test. Using this method, an antenna is built out immediately and requires less assembly time, thus cutting costs. Lockheed Martin has realised cost savings of approximately 60% by incorporating these digital tools and advanced manufacturing methods.
Qualification of the antenna
Lockheed Martin produced the first prototype of this AM omni antenna in 2015. Since then, the antenna has gone through an intense qualification process, including subjecting the product to extreme temperatures and shaking to prove its ability to survive in space.
The qualification of this antenna was especially rigorous because it was produced through AM; the team not only had to qualify the process but also had to qualify the type of aluminium they used (an aluminium 6061-based alloy). The company validated that the aluminium can consistently be additively manufactured and will have the same radio frequency properties every time.
Once the qualification was successfully executed, the first flight unit was delivered to assembly, test and launch operations for installation.
The future of the antenna
The omni antenna is now integrated into GPS III Space Vehicle 10 and is expected to launch into space by 2026. The qualified process and design are planned to be used on all future GPS IIIF satellites.
“Now that the 3D printed antenna has been qualified, we’re confident that we can print these for the next ten to twenty vehicles and they will survive the fifteen-year design life that they have,” stated Andre Trotter, vice president of Lockheed Martin Space Navigation Systems.
This antenna won’t just benefit the GPS programme; as a relatively common piece of hardware across other missions, it could be used on other spacecraft in Lockheed Martin’s portfolio.
“This is the pathfinder for increasing our speed to production of both simple components, like brackets, as well as complex hardware builds,” added Trotter. “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.”