Aaron Pearson
Vice President of Public Relations

3d printed mini satellite cubesat
Phillip Keane presenting at the Virgin Media Business’ “Three New Things” competition, photo provided by Phillip Keane.

Recreational space travel may not be on the near horizon, but 3D printing is making space more accessible! Small 3D printed satellites – some only 10cm square – are being launched routinely for industry and research. Phillip Keane’s CubeSat was recently named one of Virgin Media Business’ Three New Things for 2014.

In addition to launching his CubeSat company, Keane is an editor at Space Safety Magazine. He’s also entering a doctoral program, in which he will continue to refine CubeSats. Keane spoke to us about using 3D printing to develop his ideas for these small, useful forays into space.

Stratasys: What drew you to the idea of “mini satellites”?

Phillip Keane: I was given a choice of topics for my master's thesis at International Space University.  I wanted a project that would allow me to develop my CAD and Finite Element Analysis (FEA) skills further, and I noticed a project related to CubeSats and 3D printing. I wasn't convinced of 3D printing at that point, so I thought it would be a good excuse to discover the benefits of this technology.  A video [from Airbus] of a bike with 3D printed wheel bearings convinced me of the long term viability of 3D printing for more complex mechanisms. My first exposure to CubeSats came through colleagues who used ArduSat for their satellite projects.

Stratasys: What role did 3D printing play in your project?

PK: It was a 3D printing project from the very start! I wanted to learn about the limitations of 3D printing as well, and since I submitted my project a lot of these limitations have disappeared.

Stratasys: Which 3D printer did you use and why?

PK: I selected a Fortus 3D Production System from Stratasys for this job. There are other ways to achieve 3D printed space hardware, but the FDM method offered the best trade-offs in terms of price and performance.

cubesat 3d printed satellite
3D rendered model of the CubeSat - a 3D printed casing for mini satellites. Photo provided by Phillip Keane.

Stratasys: What material properties were you looking for that led you to choose the particular 3D printing materials for the 3D Cube Sat?

PK: I was designing the CubeSat according to CalPoly standards, so the material properties are well-defined already. The most important factors were mechanical strength (the CubeSat should withstand a 20g launch load), off-gassing of plastics should be kept to a minimum, and thermal expansion coefficient should be comparable to that of aluminum, because I don't want my CubeSat swelling up in the deployment mechanism and causing a blockage for other CubeSats. You don't want to be the engineer responsible for destroying everyone else's hard work!

Stratasys: Did your interest in space precede your interest in 3D printing? Did one lead to the other?

PK: Yes, I have always loved space, but it wasn't until the Ansari X-Prize that I realized that space was becoming more accessible for the masses. It was at that point that I decided to study aeronautical engineering. Prior to that, I had believed that space was limited to the elite, and the space agencies of the world. The Ansari X-prize, Virgin Galactic and the rise of CubeSats has shown that this is not the case. Space is for everybody. We had a 3D printer during my undergraduate degree at Coventry University, but even then in 2009, the resolution of the printers and the strength of the printed materials meant that they weren't really suitable for anything other than prototyping. This has changed significantly since then, and we are seeing more end-user applications for 3D printed products. I only really noticed this during the research for my master's thesis in 2013.

Stratasys: What are the benefits of these smaller satellites vs. larger ones?

PK: The main benefits of smaller satellites are the lower manufacture cost and the lower mass, which results in savings of launch costs. The rise of smaller, more powerful embedded systems means that a lot more computational power can be achieved in a smaller volume, which is one of the drivers behind the recent rise in CubeSats.  Additionally, the lower cost of these satellites means that several new countries adopting this format as their first national satellites. Lithuania, Romania and Switzerland have all launched CubeSats as their first national satellite. The low cost is an enabling force, which allows greater participation from countries who previously could not afford space access.

Stratasys: What are some applications of these mini satellites?

PK: Most CubeSats serve educational purposes; more than 70% are launched by academic institutes. This can be for teaching, for outreach or for research.  The second highest usage of CubeSats is for communications. Just recently, the International Space Station deployed a fleet of Earth Observation CubeSats. What you can do with a larger satellite you can do with a smaller one, albeit at smaller scales of power and resolution.