Nanosatellite fuel tank design uses additive manufacturing

A lightweight fuel tank for small-scale satellites has been designed and developed by metal additive manufacture engineers at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) as part of a pioneering UK Space Agency-funded programme.

With the annual number of small satellites deployed forecast to reach about 400 this year – an increase of 300% compared to 2016 – there is a growing market need to dramatically expand their mission capabilities, extend their orbital life and decrease the cost of constellation deployment.

AMRC engineers used topology optimisation techniques to reduce the weight of the tank by over 25%, combined with an almost three-fold increase in fuel capacity over conventional spheroidal storage tanks. This could have a significant impact on satellite launch costs.

“Developing competitive propulsion solutions for small satellites is a game changer for UK space capability,” says Abdul Haque, technical lead in metal additive manufacturing at the AMRC. “The MiniTANK project lays the groundwork for adding a key miniaturised, low-cost propulsion technology to the UK’s portfolio.”

MiniTANK is a collaborative endeavour between the AMRC and global SME technology company Added Value Solutions (AVS) UK Ltd. to develop a propellant storage system for a nanosatellite that maximises the internal volume whilst minimising mass ¬– utilising novel features that can only be manufactured through Additive Manufacturing (AM).

Backed by the UK Space Agency’s Pathfinder programme, AMRC researchers have produced a lightweight, high-strength fuel tank for a Cube Satellite (CubeSat for short) that meets the demanding performance and cost targets desired by Oxford-based AVS, a company that designs propulsion systems for small-scale satellites.