Engineers Build Space Fuel Tank Simulators with 3D Printing (Video)

Lockheed Martin 3D Prints Fuel Tank Simulation with Help from RedEye
Lockheed Martin has partnered with RedEye to produce test versions of satellite fuel tanks. (Image credit: RedEye)

Engineers have used 3D printing to craft a pair of large space fuel tank simulators in order to test key satellite components, the latest feat for additive manufacturing in the spacecraft industry. 

Lockheed Martin has partnered with RedEye to produce test versions of satellite fuel tanks. (Image credit: RedEye)

The two new fuel tank simulators were made by the rapid prototyping company RedEye for Lockheed Martin Space Systems as a way to validate satellite design. The larger of the two tanks measures 15 feet long (4.6 meters), making it one of the largest 3D manufactured items that Lockheed and RedEye have ever made. You can watch a video of the fuel tank 3D printing process.

"This project is unique in two ways — it marks the first aerospace fuel tank simulation produced through additive manufacturing and is one of the largest 3D printed parts ever built," Joel Smith, RedEye's strategic account manager for aerospace and defense, said in a statement. "Our ability to accommodate such a large configuration and adapt to design challenges on the fly, demonstrates that there really is no limit to the problem-solving potential when you manufacture with 3D printing."

The tanks were manufactured from polycarbonate material. In total, it was about half as expensive to use the 3D-printing method as it would have been to manufacture the parts. In the future, Lockheed could use the process to its advantage when bidding for space parts, company representatives added.

"The goal was to design a satellite that would make more efficient use of space and increase the satellite’s payload," Lockheed representatives said of the 3D-printed simulators. "It would require testing many assembly configurations and producing several simulators and prototypes to validate design changes. One change that needed to be validated was in the satellite's fuel tanks."

The simulator was required to test how best to put the actual fuel tanks together, and 3D printing was seen as the best choice to meet a tight deadline and contain costs.

Lockheed Martin has partnered with RedEye to produce test versions of satellite fuel tanks. The project team stands with finished tank simulations. (Image credit: RedEye)

3D printing is becoming more common for manufacturing things in space, and this summer a 3D printer will launch into space for the first time on a mission to the International Space Station. Some experts say 3D printing will help future lunar or Mars colonists manufacture materials on site.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: