How a Single Win Transformed Everything: Sidus Space and the Successful Launch of their 3D Printed Satellite

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You have to have a special kind of temperament to work in the space industry. It’s not just that you can’t be afraid to fail, for instance. You essentially have to be eager to fail, to know that you have to fail repeatedly if you’re ever going to succeed.

From the inverse perspective, you also have to know exactly how to react once a mission has gone right. That’s the position now for the team at Sidus Space, a company based in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Sidus recently saw its first satellite, LizzieSat-1, reach orbit, after launching aboard the SpaceX Transporter-10, from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

A few weeks after that, Sidus announced it had established two-way communications with LizzieSat-1 — a satellite largely produced via the Markforged additive manufacturing (AM) ecosystem — fully validating the launch as a success.

LizzieSat 1 Ready For Launch.

When a space enterprise secures its first tangible victory, everything starts to change. Having tangible proof that the goals the team has been striving for are attainable is transformative. Such an accomplishment eradicates numerous uncertainties that have existed for a lengthy period, allowing everyone involved to genuinely consider their future plans.

Prior to this though, Sidus was already contemplating their next steps. So, the LizzieSat team only had a brief moment to celebrate their achievement before they had to return to their work and start preparing for LizzieSat-2, LizzieSat-3, and LizzieSat-4. In a conversation I had with LizzieSat’s program manager, Lindsey Wait, and its senior production engineer Tony Boschi, they described the atmosphere at Sidus Space subsequent to the company achieving this major milestone:

“Before the launch, we were consistently questioning whether everything was going to operate as it should. Our initial fast prototype satellite was an concept that many people doubted,” Boschi said. “SpaceX requested we run five separate tests. We had to make changes throughout the manufacturing process, each change another learning experience. In the end, we produced a superior satellite, and I believe that our work is going to positively impact the entire industry.

“The moment it launched, for the first time since we began working on it, I managed to sleep through the night. The launch had finally happened, and the video showing its deployment was exactly as it appeared when we attached it to the Transporter-10 back at Vandenberg. LizzieSat 2, 3, and 4, are arriving rapidly, but at least for a brief moment, there was an immense feeling of relief throughout the company, because everyone at last realized that our mission was genuinely achievable.”

For Waitt, achieving this milestone was not only a relief but also profoundly cathartic:

“It was very emotional,” she said. “This is one of the best teams I’ve ever worked with, and we all put our soul into LizzieSat-1. Everyone at Sidus has the same passion and motivation, and we all worked endless hours. It was a sacrifice — our lives are in that satellite. So when we finally saw the launch, and saw our work get deployed, I cried.”

LizzieSat-1 (left), ready to deploy.

Boschi emphasized that the task would’ve been impossible without AM:

“Something like 80 percent of the satellite is printed,” the engineer noted, “so making it without AM just wouldn’t have been an option. One of the biggest benefits that everyone sees most immediately is the rail design. The shape of the vertical rail on our satellite is almost impossible to machine. But in general, every single time we tested it, we learned something about how it operates that enabled us to improve it the next time.

“Our machine shop is top-notch, it’s the best one I’ve ever worked with. The cost of making design changes, though, is so much cheaper with AM, and the process is so much faster. So anything I could do myself by printing it, I did. And we’re using it in a bunch of different ways: I made some of the fixtures that allowed us to make parts for the satellite, as well. We’re making the tooling that enables us to manufacture parts, in addition to parts themselves.”

3D printing is essential for the long-term operation of LizzieSat due to its inherent need for customisation. As stated by Waitt, the goal is for each satellite to simultaneously accommodate multiple customers:

“Companies are eager to test their technology by sending it into space, and we facilitate this process on an expedited timeline eliminating their wait. Typically, we serve two or three clients at a time. It’s akin to purchasing a seat on an airplane,” she explained. “Thus, one customer might wish to install their own camera onboard. Another might want to install a star tracker that’s still under development to assist them reach Technology Readiness Level 9 and promote their product. There are many interested in testing AI with autonomous onboard processing in the space industry at present. The use-cases are highly varied.”

Considering this scenario, it is unlikely that these will ever be mass-produced, thus making AM impeccably suited for the scale of production:

“Due to the variability of the clients involved, each satellite carries different types of payloads, making each one unique,” Waitt observed. “Despite the presence of common components across all satellites—the overall structure, for instance, remains unchanged— however, the mounting locations and the payloads constantly change.”

“We realised this after the first launch,” Boschi added. “We can mass produce the parts, but not the satellites themselves.”

“We didn’t fully grasp this until we started working on the second one,” interjected Waitt.

Thus, Sidus has embarked not just on the development of a new product, but on a whole new approach to developing products. That’s the crucial lesson that can be learned by observing the daily unfolding of the space industry: there are some things that can only be realized in real time. You can hope as hard as you’re able to that the outcome will be like you expected it to be. However, until the idea fully enters reality, you can’t know if you’ve won or lost, and you find out at the same time as everyone else. The most effective way to deal with that is to be willing to change your blueprint on the fly.

Featured image courtesy of Sidus Space

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