Satellite fuel tanks must be sufficiently lightweight and sufficiently strong to survive being launched into outer space, as well as survive missions that last decade(s) there. Despite titanium being an obvious choice of material for this, forging an object made from titanium that is 4 feet in diameter and 4 inches thick can take at least a year. Manufacturing satellite fuel tanks via traditional means also wastes 80% of the material it uses.
In 2018, aerospace and defence company Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Maryland 3D-printed a 46-inch-diameter titanium dome for its satellite fuel tanks big enough to hold 75 gallons of fluids, making it by far the biggest object they have ever 3D printed. The tank comprises a traditionally manufactured, variable-length titanium cylinder and by two 3D-printed domes welded together. The domes are made via Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing at Lockheed Martin’s Denver facility. 3D-printing the domes eliminates waste material, and makes titanium is available to use immediately, lowering the delivery time of the satellite tank from two years to three months. The previously biggest object Lockheed Martin had ever 3D printed was an electronics enclosure that was circa the size of a toaster for the “Advanced Extremely High Frequency” satellite program.
The final rounds of quality testing for the satellite fuel tank and its 3D printed domes were completed in July 2018, ending a development program that had lasted several years. Lockheed Martin is now offering the satellite fuel tank and its two 3D printed domes as one of the standard product options for its more than 2000 satellite buses.
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