Signaling Change: 3D-Printed GPS Antenna a Pathfinder for Future Satellites
New Hardware Produced Faster, for 60% Less, and Stands up to Harsh Space Environments
Lockheed Martin has qualified its first complex 3D-printed piece of hardware for spaceflight. The hardware, an omnidirectional antenna for communication relay, has been integrated onto a GPS III satellite.
An omni antenna is a teardrop-shaped piece of hardware that enables a satellite to communicate with ground systems on Earth. The antenna is part of a spacecraft’s telemetry, tracking and command subsystem, which transmits and receives signals.
The form of the new 3D-printed omni antenna is similar to its predecessor, but it’s now one solid piece as opposed to being made up of multiple parts that would otherwise need to be hand-soldered together.
The new antenna contains unique geometric features that can only be fabricated using additive manufacturing. Those features specifically contribute to defect reduction associated with plating and soldering operations of the antenna’s predecessor.
“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.”
This 3D-printing process is 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 printed out immediately and there’s less assembly time.
This “Go-Fast” production rate also cuts costs. Lockheed Martin has realized cost savings of approximately 60% by incorporating these digital tools and advanced manufacturing methods.
Qualification of the Antenna
This 3D-printed omni antenna has been years in the making, with Lockheed Martin producing the first prototype in the fall of 2015. Since then, the antenna has gone through an intense qualification process. That included putting the product through extreme temperatures and shaking to prove that it can survive in the harsh environment of space.
The qualification of this antenna was especially rigorous because it was produced through additive manufacturing. The team not only had to qualify the process of making the hardware, but they also had to qualify the type of aluminum they used: an aluminum 6061-based alloy. They validated that the aluminum can consistently be 3D-printed and it 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.
What’s Next for the Antenna
The omni antenna is now integrated onto GPS III Space Vehicle 10 and is expected to launch into space by 2026. The qualified process and design will next be used on all future GPS IIIF satellites. The GPS IIIF fleet will bring even more capabilities, including an accuracy enhancing laser retroreflector array, a new search and rescue payload, a fully digital navigation payload and a Regional Military Protection Capability that can provide up to 60x greater anti-jamming in theater to ensure U.S. and allied forces cannot be denied access to GPS in hostile environments.
“Now that the 3D-printed antenna has been qualified, we’re confident that we can print these for the next 10-20 vehicles and they will survive the 15-year design life that they have,” said Andre Trotter, vice president of Lockheed Martin Space Navigation Systems.
This antenna won’t just benefit the GPS program, though. It’s a relatively common piece of hardware across other missions, so 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,” said 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.”
This 3D-printed part was made as a result of Lockheed Martin rising to meet customer challenges. We’re ensuring those we serve always stay “Ahead of Ready.”