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A few months ago I attended the Small Satellite Conference at Utah State University. This annual gathering has been a mainstay of the small satellite community for almost thirty years. During the pre-conference workshop on cubesats Craig Kief, one of the directors of the COSMIAC research centre at the University of New Mexico, talked about how the Maker Movement and the open hardware we have built was making its way into the traditionally hidebound aerospace industry.

After his talk I sat down with Craig Kief and Brian Zufelt, also from COSMIAC, to talk about their plans not just to fly commercial off-the-shelf boards like the Raspberry Pi into orbit, but to 3D print the satellite that’s going to take it there.

While the research centre is initially looking to launch boards like the Raspberry Pi and the Beaglebone Black into orbit nestled inside a 3D printed tray, they’re also investigating the possibility of 3D printing the entire satellite, including the circuitry.

Payload Tested at COSMIAC for viability of 3D Printed Circuits. (Credit: COSMIAC)

Payload test at COSMIAC for viability of 3D printed circuits. (Credit: COSMIAC)

If you can 3D print the entire satellite as a solid cube, then without the spaces and air gaps inherent in the normal method of building a satellite it will be able to withstand much higher accelerations during launch. However if you can 3D print a satellite it might also be possible to put them together in orbit, and a satellite launch might just consist of a single email.

If you want to get a feel for how a cubesat looks and feels you can 3D print your own cubesat frame, although unless you have access to a really good SLA printer you might want to consider buying a metal frame off the shelf if you’re thinking about heading to orbit with your build.