Development of multi-functional structures for small satellites
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Improvements in miniature electronics have allowed CubeSats and other small satellites to perform increasingly complex missions. In contrast to typical space missions, many small satellites are more limited by available volume than by mass, since they must fit into small deployment pods. This available volume can be used more efficiently by taking advantage of advanced manufacturing techniques, particularly 3D printing. Hollow elements can be printed into the structure that can be used to store and transport fluid. In this way, the structure of the satellite can become multifunctional; it still provides structural support, but can also encompass fluid handling systems, such as cold gas thrusters. This concept was applied to produce a propulsion system for an interplanetary 6U CubeSat called BioSentinel. By printing the thruster from a ceramic-like material, the propellant tanks are able to fill more of the available volume than would have been possible with conventionally produced parts. Incorporating the nozzles and piping into the structure also reduces the number of pressure seals required. The BioSentinel thruster has been manufactured and tested, and will launch with the first flight of the Space Launch System in 2020. This technology was also applied to design a CubeSat structure that is entirely 3D printed, and incorporates a propulsion system into a metal structure. This improves the maneuverability of the spacecraft while also increasing volume efficiency, and allows the nozzle geometry to be optimized for specific missions. Finally, these techniques were applied to design a printed structure for a Venus atmospheric sampling probe called Cupid’s Arrow. The probe has an integrated propulsion system and a separate fluid path for collecting and storing atmospheric gas samples. This development of multifunctional structures improves the state of the art in small satellite design and enables more volumetrically efficient space missions.