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Fuel tank sets 3D print record
Completed dome exiting printer. © Lockheed Martin

Fuel tank sets 3D print record

Lockheed Martin has produced a 3D-printed titanium dome for satellite fuel tanks that sets a new record for the size of 3D-printed space parts, while cutting costs and delivery timelines.

Titanium fuel tank dome. © Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin has produced a 3D-printed titanium dome for satellite fuel tanks that sets a new record for the size of 3D-printed space parts. The 1.16m-diameter vessel completed quality testing this month, ending a multi-year development program to create giant, high-pressure tanks that carry fuel on board satellites.

The titanium tank consists of three parts welded together: two 3-D printed domes that serve as caps, plus a variable-length, traditionally-manufactured titanium cylinder that forms the body.

"Our largest 3-D printed parts to date show we're committed to a future where we produce satellites twice as fast and at half the cost," explains Rick Ambrose, Lockheed Martin Space executive vice president. The total delivery timeline for the domes has been cut from two years to three months.

Satellite fuel tanks must be both strong and lightweight to withstand the rigors of launch and decade-long missions in the vacuum of space. That makes titanium an ideal material, but procuring large titanium forgings can take a year or more, making them the most challenging and expensive parts of the tank. Traditional manufacturing techniques also meant that more than 80% of the material went to waste. 3D printing eliminates the lost material for the domes, and the titanium used for printing is readily available with no wait time.

The tank domes are a leap in size for qualified 3D-printed materials. The largest part previously qualified was a toaster-size electronics enclosure for the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite programme.

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