NASA funds demonstrator mission to print and assemble spacecraft in orbit
NASA has agreed to a US$73.7 million contract with California-based Made in Space to launch a demonstrator spacecraft that will manufacture and assemble satellite components in orbit. 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 bottlenecks when it comes to spaceflight is the limitations imposed by launch vehicles. Because they are only capable of lifting items of a certain size and weight, engineers have long had to deal with how to get the most out of relatively small, lightweight machines.
Adapting 3D printing to space would provide many advantages. Aside from the ability to create spare parts or upgrades on demand, it also means that, instead of launching complete spacecraft, raw materials could be launched with only a minimum of prebuilt components. A printer satellite could then print and assemble the final spacecraft at lower cost with greater flexibility.
To help achieve this, NASA has awarded a new contract to start the second phase of a partnership with Made in Space 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."
The animation below shows Archinaut One in action.