NASA has awarded a $73.3 million contract to Made in Space as part of the space agency’s ambitions towards improving how humans approach space travel.
Made In Space is a company that specializes in 3D printing technology for commercial and industrial-scale projects that are mainly catered for use in microgravity.
The NASA contract will mainly be focused on 3D printing materials for solar panel arrays in space, which are traditionally used to power and propel spacecraft in microgravity.
”In-space robotic manufacturing and assembly are unquestionable game changers and fundamental capabilities for future space exploration,” said NASA’s Jim Reuter, associate administrator of the Space Technology Mission Directorate.
One particular constraint with space exploration is sending actual hardware to be used for discovering the wonders of the vast universe.
Traditionally, what space agencies do is source materials and manufacture different tools that would be used to explore space down here on Earth. However, a significant consideration with these Earth-made tools are the factors that involve spaceflight and its capability to withstand forces as they make their way to space.
Conventional rockets have a strict payload limit per launch and can only carry a limited amount of weight. Furthermore, they are expensive — costing up to $10,000 per pound per delivery to the Earth’s orbit. The price could go up to ten times more if sent on the Moon.
Other considerations are the size of these payloads.
For instance, tools such as probes and satellites cannot launch off of Earth’s gravity on their own. Technically, they will need to cram in pre-existing rockets. In essence, the size and shape of its solar panels are dependent on the size of the rocket, which again is a constricting limitation.
In the manufacturing side, any spacecraft built needs to handle the full gravity down here on Earth, throughout the testing phase. Then it needs to grasp the brutal acceleration, shaking, and other forces of launch.
Hence, as a way to ultimately rid such limitations, NASA wants Made In Space to 3D print materials out of the Earth instead.
According to initial plans, manufacturing would take place on board the Archinaut One platform — a robotic manufacturing base that will launch as early as 2022, which will launch on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket.
“This technology will help humans go back to the Moon and on to Mars by lowering the cost of delivering capabilities in and beyond,” said Andrew Rush, president, and chief executive officer of Made In Space.
The partnership with Made in Space allows NASA to craft replacement parts, and repair broken pieces of the station in orbit, and will not have to go through strict processes of needing to consider Earth’s forces — which is more efficient.
Once functional, the small spacecraft will 3D print a pair of 32-foot beams to support the two 10-meter solar panel arrays that will power NASA spacecraft.
According to the space agency, these arrays could produce up to five times more powerful than those in use by similarly sized small spacecraft or enough to power an industry-standard 200-kg satellite.
Generally, these satellites are underpowered, with only a few hundred watts of power available to them.
It would even be able to provide the International Space Station with solar panels that are three times longer, but still perfectly strong and stable in the microgravity environment of low-Earth orbit.
By manufacturing the entire array in space, the smaller satellite will be able to power more science instruments, communication instruments, etc.
The spacecraft has successfully demonstrated the 3D printing of these structural beams in a NASA facility that mimics the conditions of space — a thermal vacuum chamber at the Ames Research Center.
The demonstration showed the effectiveness of the strategy and can produce good results. The printed materials withstand the harsh temperatures and pressures of space.
If the project is successful, it could transform space exploration to new heights, especially in an era where space venture becomes everyone’s interest.
3D printing in space would enable the construction of complex structures in orbit. It could also reduce the need for astronauts to perform dangerous and expensive spacewalks to perform repairs.
In the future, satellites, telescopes, and other space-based hardware will be designed down here on Earth. Then the raw materials will be launched to space with an Archinaut manufacturing system.
Archinaut will manufacture all the parts using its 3D printer and assembled in space.