WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Launching equipment and satellites into orbit is expensive, space limited, and slow, so NASA wants to eliminate these bottlenecks and 3D print and assemble objects in space.
A little while ago I discussed how 4D printing would one day help NASA print self-assembling space stations in orbit, Space Tango’s plans to launch of the world’s first fully autonomous space factories, and Jeff Bezos’s plans to move heavy manufacturing off of Earth. And now NASA has announced it’s signed a $74 million contract with California based Made in Space, who recently announced plans to turn asteroids into spacecraft, to launch what it calls “a demonstrator spacecraft that will 3D print, manufacture and assemble spacecraft [and satellites] in orbit,” which is the first step on a long journey to finally realising the end game of these lofty goals.
The goal of the demonstrator, called Archinaut One, is to develop technologies that could be used in both space manufacturing and deep-space missions.
One of the great limitations when it comes to spaceflight and launching equipment into space is the cost and space limitations imposed by today’s rockets and launch vehicles, such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Falcon rockets, and Virgin Orbit’s heavy lift 747’s. As a result engineers have long had to deal with how to get the most out of relatively small, lightweight machines and satellites. But if NASA could pull of manufacturing products in orbit then none of these limitations would be an issue.
Adapting, in this case, 3D printing to the conditions found in space would obviously provide many advantages. Aside from the ability to create spare parts or upgrades on demand in orbit it would also mean that instead of launching complete spacecraft and satellites raw materials could be launched with only a minimum of prebuilt components. A printer satellite could then print and assemble the final spacecraft and satellites at much lower cost and with greater flexibility.
To help achieve this goal NASA awarded their new contract to start the second phase of a partnership with Made in Space that was originally established through the agency’s Tipping Point solicitation. Under this public-private partnership, NASA will make its resources available while Made in Space foots at least 25 percent of the bill.
When completed, the Achinaut One demonstrator will be sent into space from New Zealand atop a Rocket Lab Electron launcher in or after 2022. When it is established in low-Earth orbit, it will 3D print two beams to a length of 32 ft (10 m) on either side of the spacecraft on which will unfurl solar panels that NASA says will provide up to five times as much power as conventional panels of the same area.
When matured, NASA sees this 3D printing technology as having many applications, including the construction of communications antennae, large scale space telescopes, and providing a springboard for returning astronauts to the Moon, and getting to Mars.
“In-space robotic manufacturing and assembly are unquestionable game changers and fundamental capabilities for future space exploration,” says Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “By taking the lead in the development of this transformative technology, the United States will maintain its leadership in space exploration as we push forward with astronauts to the Moon and then on to Mars.”