As tiny and reliable emerging satellites, PocketQubes are “an exemplar of New Space research and innovation.”
The original idea came from Professor Robert J. Twiggs from Morehead State University (MSU), who proposed the standard of “a satellite that fits in your pocket”.
Indeed, a PocketQube is a type of miniaturized satellite for space research that usually has a size of 5 cm cubed (one eighth the volume of a CubeSat), has a mass of no more than 250 grams, and typically uses commercial off-the-shelf components for its electronics.
This type of satellite is quite young – started in 2009 – but their importance is increasing at warp speed, as a solution to the rising costs of CubeSat launches to low Earth orbit.
Since then, interest for PocketQubes has arisen from the Space industry. The first PocketQube Standard has been issued in June 2018, providing a shared platform to the PocketQubes community; one of the contributors (along with GAUSS Srl, TU Delft) is Alba Orbital, a fast growing high-tech SME based in Glasgow, Scotland.
Alba Orbital provide a hub of support for the class of PocketQube satellites, by not only building their own platforms but providing parts and launch to companies, universities and space agencies around the world.
Recently Alba Orbital needed to build an updated version of their Pocketqube satellite deployer, AlbaPod 2.0.
The aims of the project were to improve on previous designs in terms of weight, manufacturability, access and incorporate a number of safety features.
Alba Orbital decided to turn to CRP Technology for the manufacturing of the deployer, as the Italian-based 3D printing company has built a considerable experience supplying cutting-edge solutions for space key industry leaders using its patented Windform® TOP-LINE composite materials. In fact most of Windform® TOP-LINE composite materials are suitable for space applications and have passed outgassing tests at NASA and ESA.
As with any aerospace part, minimising weight is a fundamental design goal, additionally it is essential that the material has been approved for flight due to tight rules regarding degassing once in space.
By Alba Orbital point of view, it was clear from the beginning that using a material already approved by the major launch providers, would be eased the adoption of the launcher by all parties.
The assignment was tough, but thanks to the long-term experience gained in the field of Additive Manufacturing service, CRP Technology accepted the challenge.
The activity of CRP Technology’s 3D printing department has been focused from the beginning on maximizing and achieving the targets required, providing full collaboration to the Alba Orbital team.
The work began with an accurate analysis of the 3D and 2D files.
Through the know-how earned in over 25 years of activity serving the most demanding and high-performance industrial sectors, CRP Technology has been able to assist Alba Orbital in choosing the best technology and material to guarantee the success of the project: Selective Laser Sintering process and Windform® XT 2.0 Carbon composite material from the Windform® TOP-LINE range of high performance materials for Additive Manufacturing.
Alba Orbital team say, “as the product needed to withstand a launch to space while containing several satellites, the pod needed to withstand high vibrations, and in the worst scenario, contain any satellite that breaks free internally. Windform® XT 2.0’s toughness and strength make it a perfect candidate for this use case.”
In the composite materials for Additive Manufacturing scenario, Windform® XT 2.0 replaces the previous formula of Windform® XT.
Windform® XT 2.0 features improvements in mechanical properties including +8% increase in tensile strength, +22% in tensile modulus, and a +46% increase in elongation at break.
Once received the final .STP file from Alba Orbital, CRP Technology created in a short time AlbaPod v2, an extremely light weight flight proven 6P (Up to 6 satellites) 3D printed deployer for Pocketqube compatible satellites, with a mass of <500g (60% less than AlbaPod v1).
Professional 3D printing, combined with Windform® XT 2.0 Carbon-composite material, proved to be the best choice: the 3D printed deployer has successfully passed the control criteria, and has fully complied with the requests and Alba Orbital’s standards.
Alba Orbital team add, “Windform® XT 2.0 is a non-outgassing, lightweight fibre reinforced polyamide plastic very similar to Nylon.
The material combined with the manufacturing technique allowed us the option to design parts that can not be manufactured with traditional techniques, with thin sections and extremely complex geometry’s, and these parts can be manufactured and delivered in a fraction of the time for a traditional supply chain.”
Alba Orbital team specifies some technical details the advantages obtained by using Additive Manufacturing and Windform® XT 2.0 material:
“The most innovative aspect of the project – Alba Orbital comments - was the sheer number of components we switched over to Windform® XT 2.0, not only was the shell redesigned in the material, but also the moving ejection mechanism and door assembly. Additionally some parts are critically structural to the assembly as a whole.”
Regarding the mechanical performance of this part, they say that “this is critical. Not only does the full assembly need to function correctly to facilitate the deployment of the satellites inside, but must also contain the satellites in the event of catastrophic failure of a payload during the launch as anything breaking free could fatally damage other payloads or the launch vehicle itself. This was tested thoroughly with free masses on vibration tables at extremely high loading and the shell held up phenomenally.
Additionally weight is a major concern with anything going into space due to the costs associated, utilising Windform® XT 2.0 allowed us to reduce the mass of a number of major components.”
Alba Orbital team foresee and hope for an increasing use of professional 3D printing in the field, because, they say, “3D printing allows us to rapidly improve design and customise/create bespoke launchers in the future for demanding payloads which may fall outside the Pocketqube standards or require special considerations.
It will also allow the fast integration of new release mechanisms allowing us to switch manufacturers comparatively quickly and easily if problems with supply chain arise.”
Alba Orbital team performed many tests on the 3D printed AlbaPod v2.
On September 9th 2019 the first integration occurred.
At the beginning of December 2019, Alba Orbital launched 6 PocketQube satellites into orbit via 3D printed AlbaPod v2 (mission: Alba Cluster 2). Alba Cluster 2 has been on orbit for 100 days. New launch with 3D printed AlbaPod v2 (Alba Cluster 3) is expected for later 2020.
The experience in the manufacturing of AlbaPod v2, the technology and material used, will be presented at the 4th Annual PocketQube Workshop 2020, that will take place in Glasgow University Union on the 8th and 9th of October 2020. It is an opportunity to explore PocketQube technology, as the two day workshop brings together World leading innovators from the PocketQube community and will cover all areas for PocketQube developers.