Mar 16, 2016 | By Kira

The European Space Agency (ESA) and Swiss company SWISSto12 have developed a prototype 3D printed dual reflector antenna designed for future use on space-qualified satellites. This is the first dual-reflector 3D printed antenna for the ESA, and has so far achieved excellent test results.

Using SWISSto12’s proprietary additive manufacturing technique, the space antenna prototype was 3D printed in a single piece out of advanced polymer materials before being plated with copper to meet its radio-frequency (RF) performance requirements. It also incorporates a corrugated feedhorn and two reflectors.

3D printing technology, and particularly 3D printing the antenna in a single, all-in-one piece, allowed the engineers to ensure an extremely high level of accuracy. “We have a very good agreement between the measurements and the simulations,” explained Luis Rolo, antenna test engineer. “Making a simulation based on a complete 3D model of the antenna leads to a significant increase in its accuracy.”

"By using this same model to 3D print it in a single piece, any source of assembly misalignments and errors are removed, enabling such excellent results,” he continued.

In addition to significantly increasing the antenna’s accuracy, 3D printing provides several key advantages to space antenna manufacturing. According to SWISSto12, these include reduced costs, reduced lead times, increase in RF design flexibility, and perhaps most importantly, reduced component weight.

Indeed, when it comes to space launches and space technology, weight reduction is a critical strategy that can make or break a successful launch. Thus, SWISSto12’s cornerstone R&D goals are to reduce the size, cost, and weight of antennas, while increasing the capabilities of data transfer during space missions. So far, the company has managed to create new designs weighing as much as ten times less than existing antennas.

"The use of 3D printing open up possibilities for RF structures that were previously impossible to manufacture with conventional techniques," explains the company, which, in addition to 3D printed antennas, supplies additive manufactured waveguide and filter components for microwave and mm-wave signals. "The use of plastics allows for weight reduction and thermal insulation. High quality copper plating ensures state of the art RF performances."

So far, the all-in-one 3D printed antenna is still a prototype, however in tests at the ESA’s Compact Antenna Test Range (CATR), it has performed exceptionally well. “Although the surface finish is rougher than for a traditionally manufactured antenna, we’re very happy with the resulting performance,” said Rolo.

Simulated and actual 4.5 Ghz radiation patterns from ESA's first 3D-printed dual-reflector antenna show "excellent results" according to antenna test engineers.

The CATR is a shielded chamber for testing small antennas (up to 1m in diameter). Located in the Netherlands, it is isolated from external electromagnetic radiation, and its inner walls are covered with pyramid-shaped, non-reflective foam that absorbs radio signals and thus simulates a space environment. Larger antennas are tested at the ESA’s Hertz Chamber.

ESA Antenna Test Facility

“Designed for future mega-constellation small satellite platforms, it would need further qualification to make it suitable for real space missions, but at this stage, we’re most interested in the consequences on RF performance of the low-cost 3D printing process,” said Maarten van der Vorst, designer of the 3D printed antenna and member of the ESA’s Electromagnetics & Space Environment Division.

The next steps are therefore to further refine the 3D printed space antenna, and to design more complex geometries that target higher frequencies. In the long run, SWISSto12 and the ESA aim to 3D print space-qualified radio-frequency components for Earth observation and science instruments.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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