This mission of the European Space Agency relies on the technology of the Advanced Center for Aerospace Technologies (CATEC), based in Aerópolis, and the Spanish engineering company CiTD, which have manufactured 11 structural components through metal additive manufacturing (3D printing) achieving a weight reduction of 52% compared to the versions developed by conventional technology, key in optimizing the structure of the spacecraft

The first European mission to the planet Jupiter is already in orbit. Thus began an 8-year journey with the goal of exploring the gas giant planet of the Solar System and its icy moons Ganymede, Europa and Callisto, in search of liquid water.

But this journey began several years ago, when more than 80 European entities put their cutting-edge technology at the service of the European Space Agency to develop the JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer) space probe. Among them, the engineering company CiTD and the Center for Advanced Aerospace Technologies (CATEC), which have joined efforts and resources to jointly overcome one of the challenges proposed in this space mission: reduce the weight of the secondary structure of the JUICE spacecraft by applying metal additive manufacturing technology in the 11 pieces that have been manufactured in our country. “This is really a great milestone for the European space industry, and without a doubt for CATEC, where we have developed the supports for the mission sensors and other actuation mechanisms, which although they belong to the secondary structure of the JUICE spacecraft are mission critical. We have achieved a weight reduction of 52% compared to solutions developed using conventional manufacturing technology”, says Dr. Fernando Lasagni, Technical Director of Materials and Processes at CATEC.

The process used to manufacture these components is powder bed laser casting, which basically consists of a high-power laser that melts, layer by layer, metal powder particles, generating a solid body. Thanks to the freedom of design that this technology allows, geometries that weigh between 30 and 60 percent less in mass can be generated. Some geometries that would be impossible to manufacture using other conventional machining techniques. This technology has been applied by CATEC, together with CiTD and AIRBUS, in the development of eleven highly optimized parts in Aluminum Al-Mg-Sc (Scalmalloy®). In the words of Marta García-Cosio, Director of CiTD, “the JUICE space mission requires a large reduction in mass of the structure compared to scientific instruments and fuel, and thanks to 3D printing technology we have been able to design and optimize the mass of the secondary structure of the satellite.

The challenge has not only been to manufacture the largest aluminum components to date using 3D printing for a space probe, but to do so in record time. The manufacture of these components require times ranging from 24 hours to 5 days, in the case of larger elements. Prior to manufacturing, a detailed test plan was designed for the dynamic and static characterization of the mechanical behavior of the aluminum alloy used, as well as to validate other aspects related to the thermal and electrical conductivity of the material. In parallel, and taking into account the requirements of the project, a method of monitoring the manufacturing raw material has been developed, controlling aspects such as the chemical composition of the alloy, among other aspects, and the reliability of the manufacturing systems. At the end of manufacturing, the most revolutionary inspection methods have been applied, using computerized tomography, a method that ensures the highest quality of each of the components.

CATEC has been working on 3D printing technology for the space sector since 2011, and has participated in the manufacture of the critical structure for telecommunications or exploration satellites such as QUANTUM, PROBA3 and CHEOPS, the latter also with CiTD. “This acquired experience has been key for the European Space Agency to trust CATEC for this historic space mission to Jupiter, a challenge also for us that has marked a before and after in our technology center”, says Dr. Lasagni.