Forget the shoebox-sized cubesats launched by Rocket Lab, US-based Maxar Technologies makes "mega satellites" - each the size of a double-decker bus - and Auckland company Zenith Tecnica has helped it get five of them into space over the past five years.
Zenith Tecnica technical director Peter Sefont says his company is celebrating a half-decade relationship with the giant US satellite maker this year, and has only recently gained permission from its aerospace client to talk about their contract for the first time.
His company 3D prints titanium parts for Maxar's satellites.
Its kit is a step up from the $350 3D printers that melt plastic. Zenith has five GE Additive Arcam EBM machines, built in Sweden and worth the best part of $1 million each.
Those initials stand for Electron Beam Melting. Sefont likens the process to the way an old CRT television used to work, creating a picture by firing electrons at a screen.
An electron beam melts titanium powder in a process involving temperatures of more than 1600C, then a part is printed in layers, each just 50 nanometre's thick (1 nanometre is a millionth of a metre).
While anyone can buy a high-end EBM machine, Sweden's Arcam (bought by GE in 2017) is less than two decades old, and Sefont says there are relatively few people skilled in the complexities of operating them. He says Zenith has one of the largest EBM installations outside of government-owned aerospace operations.
After buying their first EBM machine, Zenith Tecnica staff created a large, lightweight demonstrator piece to show off the technology's full potential (each Arcam EBM can 3D print components up to the size of a waste paper bin) then took the sample to international tradeshows, where they were scouted by Maxar. Reps for the satellite company then approached the Kiwi startup.
Things soon scaled up. Since 2016, Maxar has built and launched five spacecraft with 260 titanium components produced by Zenith Tecnica using additive manufacturing (AM) processes. More than 270 additional parts are currently in production and assembly on eight other satellites.
Along the way, Zenith has also done work for an (un-named) America's Cup team and a top-tier movie studio it can't disclose (titanium pieces for a motion-capture rig are on display in its office).
It's also developed a partnership with High-Performance Sport NZ to create prosthetic attachments for Paralympic athletes, and works closely with Christchurch orthopaedic implant company Ossis. The latter has become a key client, with Zenith creating artificial hips and other titanium-made joints to specifications Ossis has personalised for each patient using 3D modelling software.
After being 3D printed, each artificial joint is finished off in a more conventional engineering workshop (see video above) with more familiar hammers, chisels and files.
Zenith imports titanium powder from Canada. It's hugely expensive to get high-grade supply, and if not handled correctly it's highly flammable and under the right (or should that be wrong) conditions it can spontaneously combust. Why titanium? It's relatively light, yet also incredibly strong for its weight, Sefont says.
"There are two main things a part on a satellite needs to survive," the technical director says. "Everyone's seen footage of Rocket Lab's rockets going up. There's a huge amount of vibration and forces going through the spacecraft. The second is that once a satellite is in orbit, there's an extreme temperature environment. One side might be really hot in the sun and the other freezing cold in the vacuum of space.
The EBM 3D printing allows high precision, but it's also a huge time-saver for Maxar, Sefont says. A satellite component that used to take five people months can now be turned around by Zenith in around three weeks.
Zenith Tecnica was founded in 2014, and although it's been under the radar so far, its sole owner and managing director, Matthew Wielenga, hit headlines with his former company - which sold synthetic cannabis under the "Kronic" brand until it was outlawed by the government in 2013.
He last featured in the Herald four years ago, when it was revealed he bought a $4.6 million Takapuna clifftop home, through a trust in 2012.
The seven-year-old Zenith currently has a dozen staff occupying a small and (from the outside) unassuming space in an office park in Albany. But the privately-held company is looking to grow by a factor of 10 over the next 10 years.
A lot of the growth should come from the space sector, Sefont says.
Recent regulatory changes in the US, designed to free up spectrum, have contributed to a growth spurt in the satellite business, he says. Already, companies like SpaceX and Rocket Lab - which plans the first launch of its much larger, eight tonne-payload Neutron rocket in 2024 - have been telling investors that thousands more satellites will be launched by the end of the decade (albeit with the recent trend being toward massive arrays of tiny satellites, witnessed by Space X's Starlink project and Swarm).
Zenith has not done any business with Rocket Lab customers, incidentally. Sefont says titanium doesn't hold the same appeal for microsatellites, which are subject to fewer stresses and strains.
Maxar's plan to create a 'digital twin of the planet'
Maxar - listed on the Nasdaq with a US$2.5 billion market cap - already has a substantial operation. In a February interview with the Wall Street Journal, its chief executive Dan Jablonsky said his company's satellites, circling every 94 minutes, survey 3.5 million square kilometers of the Earth every day. They capture images that are accurate down to a metre and are stored in a massive data set. Each satellite's camera can be swung up to 50 degrees from overhead. Maxar has 17 years of imaging history. It stores 120 petabytes of data on Amazon's servers.
The US military is its most important Maxar customer, the Journal said: "Maxar's data set and 3-D point clouds can track enemy missile launchers or tanks or anything else, and note changes in case of a threat. Generals then have the option, as Jablonsky put it with one of my new favorite expressions, to 'end kinetic energy down range'."
Google - for its Maps product - is also a major Maxar client.
This year Maxar starts a big upgrade, the Journal says.
For "US$600 million all in, launched and insured" six new satellites known as Worldview Legion will have more coverage and higher accuracy, down to a third of a metre.
They'll fly both polar and other loops so they can revisit the same site up to 15 times a day.
"For commercial uses, I think this might put the US five years ahead of anyone else - maybe 10," Jablonsky said.
The Maxar boss says his company's ultimate plan is to use all the data collected by its satellites to create "a digital twin of the planet" - a 3D model of the world that can be updated almost in real-time.