Made In Space: 3-D printing to revolutionize space construction
Made In Space, Inc., the startup company out of Singularity University which, on Sept. 23, 2014, supplied the first 3-D printer to the International Space Station (ISS), has developed a program that it hopes will revolutionize construction in space, called the Archinaut Development Program.
Made In Space CEO Andrew Rush said: “It’s our ambition to develop the manufacturing technologies that will usher in the era of true commercial space utilization.”
Using a combination of 3-D printing and robotic arms, the Archinaut project aims to develop small satellites which will be able to construct large structures in space.
“The real difference maker for this technology is in the area of being able to put stuff up that you can’t origami fold up, or that would be really, really difficult to do with a traditional deployable system,” Rush said.
Rush explained that folding up structures so that they can survive launch prevents them from being truly optimized for space. Building them in space is a game-changer.
NASA selected Made In Space for its “Tipping Point” technologies in November 2015. Testing is under way at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in California, analyzing structures made by the 3-D printer aboard the ISS. The next phase will involve the use of robotic arms. The first phase of the project will last 18 months.
The second phase will involve the launch of a spacecraft which will demonstrate these techniques in orbit, building a structure a few meters across.
Archinaut’s Ulisses process uses a 3-D printer to manufacture parts from raw material stored in the satellite’s toolbox. Then robotic arms would assemble the structure. Raw material could come from asteroids or it could be recycled space debris.
“Where this gets really interesting is, tens to 100 meters plus,” Rush said. “And that’s what we’re angling toward.”
One possible construction would be massive space telescopes. The structures could be manufactured in orbit using the 3-D printer, and then the lenses and mirrors, manufactured on the ground, could be integrated using robotic arms.
Rush points out that telescopes are not really space-optimized when they’re folded up in a nosecone for launch. A totally space-constructed telescope – or any other structure – would be unlimited in size and shape.
Video courtesy of Made In Space
Made In Space is not the only company taking an interest in in-space manufacturing. Tethers Unlimited, a private aerospace company in Bothell, WA, plans on launching three experiments into space over the next three years.
Tethers Unlimited CEO Robert Hoyt said: “The first scheduled flight experiment is the ‘Refabricator’ recycling and 3-D Printing payload that will go up in 2018.”
The Refabricator was developed by Firmamentum, a subsidiary of Tethers Unlimited. Developed with backing from NASA and the Pentagon’s Defense Advances Research Projects Agency (DARPA), it recycles plastic waste into raw material filament for 3-D printers to manufacture new parts.
After the Refabricator, the company plans on putting MakerSat into orbit – a CubeSat that will be 3-D printed, assembled, and deployed aboard the ISS.
After that, Hoyt expects to launch the Dragonfly experimental satellites. Developed by SSL (formerly Space Systems/Loral, LLC), of Palo Alto, California, the Dragonfly satellites will be assembled on orbit.
SSL President John Celli said: “NASA’s Tipping Point program enables SSL to qualify new technologies for the commercial market while at the same time providing advances for future NASA missions.
“Satellites assembled on-orbit using our integrated robotics capability will be capable of higher performance than satellites that can be launched today. An added benefit will be antennas that can be moved and changed during a satellite’s mission life for flexibility and to accommodate changing market requirements.”
The ISS took ten years to build, requiring dozens of Space Shuttle flights hauling huge, cumbersome modules that had been constructed on Earth and required many spacewalks to assemble. These new technologies promise to eliminate such a complex and expensive construction process as well as making space manufacturing cheap, simple, and capable of building a true spacefaring infrastructure.
Video courtesy of SSL
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.