3D-printed solar panels for cubesats!

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A solar panel for a cubesat

The image on the right was sent to me last night by engineer Joe Latrell. It shows a 3D-printed solar panel designed for use on a cubesat. As he wrote,

[This is] the first integration of a solar panel with the 3D printed material. The panel is not attached but rather embedded in the plastic during the printing process. This helps protect the panel from transport damage and makes it easier to assemble the final satellite. This design needs a slight adjustment but is almost there.

What makes Joe’s work most interesting is where he is doing it. Last week, in posting a link to a story about a Rocket Lab deal that would make secondary payloads possible on its smallsat rocket Electron, I noted that things were moving to a point where someone could build a satellite for launch in his garage.

This in turn elicited this comment from Joe:

As a matter of fact, I am building a PocketQube satellite for launch in Q3 2019. Yes, I am working in a small shop – just behind the garage. Nothing fancy but the price was right. I am working with Alba Orbital and the flight is scheduled on the Electron. These are very exciting times.

Alba Orbital is smallsat company aimed at building lots of mass produced smallsats weighing only about two pounds.

Anyway, Joe then followed up with another comment with more information:

This first [satellite] is just to see if it can be done. I plan to have it take a couple images and relay data regarding the orientation methods I am planning to use (gravity and magnetic fields). If it works, I am hoping to get funding to develop a small series of satellites to track global water use.

It is also a good way to test some of the materials I think would make spacecraft lighter and cheaper.

Yesterday he sent me the above image. This is the future of unmanned satellites and planetary probes, small, light, cheap, and built with 3D printers by single entrepreneurs. And because of their inexpensive nature, the possibilities for profit and growth are truly almost infinite, which in turn will provide developments that make space travel for humans increasingly smaller, lighter, cheaper, and easier to build as well.

To repeat Joe’s comment, these are very exciting times.



  • Kevin R.

    Satellites as a cottage industry. Who’d a ever thunk it.

  • There are people throwing public temper tantrums over perceived social injustces while others in the same ‘unjust’ society are building space hardware in the garage.


  • Edward

    When the cubesat concept was first announced to the world, the announcement suggested that they could be satellites for the rest of us; they could be so inexpensive to make and launch that we could have our own personal satellite. Who knows, a cottage industry, with cubesats being kit-built in the garage (remember Heathkit?), may have been part of that dream, incredible as it would have seemed a decade and a half ago.

    From what I have been seeing, including Joe Latrell’s work, this is becoming true. Alba Orbital and a few other companies are working on this kind of inexpensive, easy access to space.

    The initial idea for the cubesat was to standardize student-built satellites around the world to reduce the complexity of mounting and releasing these satellites as secondary payloads piggybacking on the big rockets. It was quickly realized that such a standard satellite and a standard release mechanism made this class of satellite desirable for more than just students. Now, the military, NASA, NSA, many companies, and other countries also choose this standard as a space platform.

    As engineers, such as Joe, and companies find ways to make cubesats and smallsats even less expensive and easier to build, launch, and use, satellites have started becoming smaller and easier to replace as technology advances make them obsolete. Because they are less expensive, these satellites can have short-term missions and have been used as technology test-beds. As Robert has been showing us, over the years, several launch companies are building small rockets to launch these small satellites into useful (non-piggyback) orbits.

    In addition to the commercialization of launches and of manned spaceflight, as Joe and Robert noted, this is another part of the space industry that is so exciting, right now, largely because of people like Joe taking the initiative to innovate solutions for reducing the costs and complexities of cubesats and smallsats.

  • Edward

    The headline on the latest Space News print edition: “The Evolving Smallsat Ecosystem: Small satellites are at the center of a space industry transformation”

    Online coverage of the 2018 AIAA/Utah State Small Satellite Conference:

  • Mark Hubbard

    Now that the launch industry has a way to move forward without the expense of the old way of doing business there is a growth opportunity for CubeSats to take off & blossom into an open ended business. This will reverberate through the “standard” sized satellite market making more opportunities. All providing market for the launch industry. This is the way forward to a more vibrant economic path. Which will set the foundation for further advancement such as space stations. I can see, soon, the need for a basic space station component, cubed shaped, with six docking ports, one on each face. Bet these units become as common as VW bugs.

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