We can't print entire satellites yet, but the 3D printing of major components is moving forward with ESA unveiling a prototype 3D-printed radio antenna. Currently undergoing testing at ESA's Compact Antenna Test Facility in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, it's the space agency's first 3D-printed dual-reflector antenna incorporating a corrugated feed horn and two reflectors.

According to the ESA team working on the project, the new low-cost antenna is designed for use in a " mega-constellation" of small satellites. It was printed as a single piece of polymer, then copper plated using a special process to coat it evenly and completely, as well as to give it the proper radio-frequency (RF) performance requirements.

In addition to lower costs and faster manufacturing, ESA says that 3D printing allows the antenna to be made in a single piece despite its complex geometry. This removes the need for assembly and the misalignments and errors that this can cause.

Comparing simulated and actual measured 14.5 Ghz radiation patterns from ESA's first 3D-printed dual reflector antenna(Credit: ESA)

ESA is testing the antenna in a shielded chamber designed to remove outside interference when testing small satellite components. It still requires further qualification before its certified fit for space missions, and though the finished antenna has a rougher finish than conventional ones, the ESA team is satisfied with its performance, which tallies well against computer simulations.

Two different antennae were made for ESA by the Swiss company SWISSto12 and the space agency says that it will now concentrate on more complex geometries that can handle higher frequencies with the goal of producing space-qualified RF components for Earth observation and science satellites.

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