NASA Funds Demo of 3D-Printed Spacecraft Parts Made, Assembled in Orbit

From NASA

NASA has awarded a $73.7 million contract to Made In Space, Inc. of Mountain View, California, to demonstrate the ability of a small spacecraft, called Archinaut One, to manufacture and assemble spacecraft components in low-Earth orbit. The in-space robotic manufacturing and assembly technologies could be important for America’s Moon to Mars exploration approach.

The contract is the start of the second phase of a partnership established through NASA’s Tipping Point solicitation. The public-private partnership combines NASA resources with an industry contribution of at least 25% of the program costs, shepherding the development of critical space technologies while also saving the agency, and American taxpayers, money.

Archinaut One is expected to launch on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from New Zealand no earlier than 2022. Once it’s positioned in low-Earth orbit, the spacecraft will 3D-print two beams that extend 32 feet (10 meters) out from each side of the spacecraft. As manufacturing progresses, each beam will unfurl two solar arrays that generate as much as five times more power than traditional solar panels on spacecraft of similar size.

Through a private-public partnership with NASA, Made In Space, Inc. will demonstrate the ability of a small spacecraft, called Archinaut One, to manufacture and assemble spacecraft components in low-Earth orbit.

Credits: Made In Space, Inc.

Watch video on YouTube.

“In-space robotic manufacturing and assembly are unquestionable game-changers and fundamental capabilities for future space exploration,” said 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.”

The potential of these technologies is profound and includes such benefits as:

  • Enabling remote, in-space construction of communications antennae, large-scale space telescopes and other complex structures;
  • Enabling small satellites to deploy large surface area power systems and reflectors that currently are reserved for larger satellites;
  • Eliminating spacecraft volume limits imposed by rockets; and,
  • Avoiding the inherent risk of spacewalks by performing some tasks currently completed by astronauts.

Made In Space began working on Archinaut as a ground demonstration in 2016 and, just a year later, successfully 3D-printed structural beams in a unique NASA facility that mimics the conditions of space. In a thermal vacuum chamber at the agency’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, they were able to prove the printing equipment and printed hardware can withstand the pressure, temperature, and other rigors of space.

The Archinaut team includes Made In Space, Northrop Grumman of Falls Church, Virginia, Ames, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. NASA’s Technology Demonstration Missions program within the Space Technology Mission Directorate matures groundbreaking technologies to extend mission capabilities as well as government and commercial opportunities in space. The program is based at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

To learn more about NASA’s investments in space technology, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/spacetech

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20 thoughts on “NASA Funds Demo of 3D-Printed Spacecraft Parts Made, Assembled in Orbit

  1. The first step on the road to Tippler’s replicating automatons for colonizing the galaxy.

      • Tippler’s was a serious proposal, not some movie ploy. He made it in the context of a discussion on the existence or not of extra-terrestrial civilisations. His argument was along these lines: solar system exploration will be done by robots followed by galactic exploration. Any civilisation would take that route because of the overriding economics. Therefore, any civilisation embarking on colonising the galaxy will build robots who can repair themselves and when they encounter the right set of raw materials will replicate themselves. He argues that in this way within a few million years the robots will have travelled throughout the galaxy; a mere moment in cosmic time. Hence, if there are other civilisations we should find at least one of those robots in our own solar system. Its IR signature would make it stand out as a sore thumb. We haven’t seen anything remotely like it; therefore there are no other civilisations.

        The strength of his argument is that even if there are thousands of civilisation that don’t embark on such a quest, you need only one that does.

        • “Its IR signature would make it stand out as a sore thumb. ”

          A basic unjustified assumption which undermines his whole argument.

          Typical logic of someone who “knows” the answer then sets out to prove it.

  2. People mostly ignore logistics because it isn’t usually a problem. When conditions are challenging though, logistics make the difference between success and complete unmitigated disaster. The military understands this in its bones.

    The military is paying close attention to the use of 3D printing to simplify and toughen the supply chain. link You don’t have to stock 10,000 items near the front, all you need is a 3D printer, metal powder, and fuel. You go from several huts worth of infrastructure, manned by a dozen soldiers, to something that can be carried on a single truck manned by two or three.

    I can totally see how NASA would be interested in 3D printing for operations in outer space.

    • Dead On. Provisioning is one of the three huge problems facing any attempt to make human journeys beyond Earth orbit. (The other two are radiation and maintaining a habitable environment in a more or less completely closed environment). It’s a LOT more complicated than just throwing a 3D-printer and a few bags of feedstock into a locker. For example usable circuit boards can (probably) be 3D printed if needed. But so far, no one has managed to print even a basic 60 year old technology RTL integrated circuit. Think about how many mission critical semiconductor devices will be on the first manned flight to Mars and how many spare parts would need to be carried just in case something fails.

      • But so far, no one has managed to print even a basic 60 year old technology RTL integrated circuit.

        True but there are FPGAs and PSoCs. They could drastically reduce the number of inventoried parts.

        • Yes FPGA and SOCs will possibly figure prominently in the planning. But that will likely mean redoing (and requalifying) most every digital device in non-Earth orbit space — often in non-optimal ways — in order to utilize whatever hardware “they” decide to make standard. I think probably all that can be done. But I imagine that it’ll be more complicated and take longer and cost more than most folks assume. Most space tech tends to be that way

          Maybe there’s some simpler cute answer. I’m sure there are bright folks in various places thinking hard about that very thing.

          • I’d like to know how they will do aerospace qualified QA on stuff made in place. You send up another space station equipped with all the test gear?

      • Yes, many parts are not simple single-layer devices. Semiconductors and Integrated Circuits have MANY, MANY layers that would not be possible using 3D printing. There are some serious bugs to be worked out before the technology works for space exploration.

        • I can imagine there are many issues to be worked out before ICs can be 3D-printed, but surely layers is not one of them? Layers are precisely what 3D-printers do easily, afaik.

    • From my time in the AF and the Navy, I can identify with that. Parts we had to order, to be made on-order, were EXTREMELY expensive! Firing up a 3D printer would HAVE to be cheaper than retooling an entire assembly line to produce a few parts! Now, as for the Military grade hardening of, say, a bolt, that might be a bit harder to accomplish. Overall, though, a GREAT idea!

  3. 3-D printing in space would also come in handy for creating replacement spacecraft parts for those that break down.

    A 3-D printer would have come in handy on the Apollo 13 mission. Although the Apollo 13 crew and Mission Control did a pretty good job of cobbling a solution together without one. 🙂

    • They still would have had to cobble together a rigged solution – the failure killed their power, so any 3-D printer would have been offline. I guess in future designs, we’ll have to make sure the tanks are not interconnected or the interconnection happens very remotely from the tanks, so all the fuel or oxidizer isn’t lost in a single tank failure/explosion. As I remember, they still had hydrogen for the fuel cells, but the oxygen from all tanks was lost due to the explosive failure of one, thus making power production impossible.

    • The nice thing about welding in space (a vacuum) is no flux is needed to suppress oxidation of the weld metal. The bad thing about zero-g would be splatter going everywhere instead of dropping to a surface, but most of this is flux, so as long as zero-g welding is done in a vacuum without flux, should work just fine.

      • As long as the material is ferrous, simply add a magnetic plate to the rig and the splatter will go to it.

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