This is a guest post. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or IEEE.
Imagine a future where we no longer need to fold all of a satellite into a rocket fairing to deliver them to space—we simply make the satellite up there. Antennas, trusses, and large reflectors would all be developed and assembled on orbit without human intervention.
Autonomous in-space manufacturing could make it faster and less expensive to build space infrastructure and reduce the amount of mass needed deploy critical capabilities to space. But how do we reach this goal? As CEO of Made in Space, Inc., a company working in this area, I can see a path forward, though it’s not without hurdles.
There are four key competencies that make it possible for us to autonomously manufacture large, useful structures in space. These are in-vacuum additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing), extended complex structure manufacturing (the process of fabricating components larger than the volume of the manufacturing device), robotic assembly, and autonomous inspection and verification.
The first step is to develop a collection of technologies capable of producing many different components and assembling them into a satellite or part of a satellite without human supervision. Specifically, Made In Space (MIS) aims to combine all four of the key competencies I mentioned into one system.
This new technology suite will then be used to deliver unprecedented capabilities in low Earth orbit (LEO) for space exploration and commercialization. MIS has taken this approach because, for the value of in-space manufacturing to truly be realized, this collection of technologies must be as generally applicable as possible. A general system that is capable of building antennas and trusses, and solar arrays well is preferable to a “point solution” type approach that can only do one thing (e.g., build an L-band antenna) really well.
Already, technologies like 3D printing and robotics have proven to be valuable resources in space. For example, MIS’s Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) was launched in 2016 and now resides at the International Space Station, where parts are made and used by astronauts faster than they could be launched from the ground. The Canadian Space Agency’s Candarm2 robotic system also operates on the ISS, facilitating cargo ship docking and station maintenance. But so far, autonomous 3D printing and robotics have never been integrated to build something new in space. Made In Space has developed a system that will do just that.
In 2016, via a public-private partnership with NASA and leading a team which includes Northrop Grumman, MIS began developing Archinaut—an in-space manufacturing and robotic assembly platform. The core technologies for Archinaut address all the competencies required for successful on-orbit manufacturing of satellites. This integrated system is designed to 3D print large parts and then use advanced robotics to integrate those parts with other components and verify the finished product’s structural integrity.
Archinaut’s core systems have since shown that they can successfully fabricate and assemble components in multiple thermal vacuum campaigns that simulated the temperature and pressure environment of space. Our successful testing campaigns have qualified Archinaut to be flown and tested in space.
The next step is to prepare Archinaut for a spaceflight mission that would demonstrate its capabilities on orbit. We’re confident that we can demonstrate this technology on orbit in the next 3 to 4 years. Once it’s deployed in space, Archinaut will represent the first free-flying autonomous manufacturing platform to operate on orbit.
Developing these capabilities will allow other companies to avoid the cost of launching large satellites by enabling small satellites (also called smallsats) to do more. One of Archinaut’s near-term primary applications is to manufacture power systems on smallsats. Archinaut would be integrated onto a smallsat and then launched into orbit. Once on orbit, Archinaut would manufacture large solar arrays that would provide power for the smallsat in quantities which greatly exceed the state of the art.
With Archinaut, MIS customers could launch payloads on smallsats and manufacture power systems on orbit that could deliver five times as much power as is currently available on these satellites. This enables customers to launch power-intensive payloads on smaller launch vehicles, thereby saving millions of dollars by not having to rely on large satellites and large launch vehicles to meet the necessary power requirements.
Archinaut also makes it easier to manufacture antennas, reflectors, or imaging systems in space without having to worry about mass or size constraints. Further in the future, it may even be possible to upcycle space debris into usable assets on orbit.
All of this could soon be possible through Archinaut, thanks to Made In Space’s robust technology roadmap that has seen us build upon our understanding of 3D printing in space to scale to more advanced capabilities.
AMF, the world’s first commercial 3D printer on the International Space Station, is the most versatile and durable manufacturing facility operating in low Earth orbit. AMF was also the first facility to additively manufacture anything in microgravity. After nearly 3 years of successful operations, the printer has produced more than 200 tools, devices, and, components.
This technology has provided valuable insights as MIS prepares to manufacture larger structures in space. The engineering knowledge gained through the development of AMF informed the Archinaut program as our team designed new systems that had to print not only in microgravity, but in the vacuum of space—and not strictly within confines of the International Space Station. Figuring out how to 3D print in the temperature and vacuum conditions of space was an important challenge to overcome, as no technology on the market had ever demonstrated this capability.
Specifically, AMF’s ability to print with various materials has influenced Archinaut’s development. AMF has successfully printed with materials including polyetherimide/polycarbonate, also known as Ultem, on orbit. This material is an aerospace-grade polymer that has previously been used in satellites, aircraft cabins, and rocket parts. The ability to manufacture with space-ready materials is key to the success of space manufacturing.
Archinaut will fly within the next few years and demonstrate its capabilities on orbit. The flight of Archinaut will mark a new era for space manufacturing and commercialization. The adoption of on-orbit manufacturing will transform how we build in space and how we explore deeper into space. The design landscape for satellites and other space assets will be forever changed. At Made In Space, we will continue to iterate on this progress and deliver new capabilities that allow us to manufacture the future in space.
About the Author
Andrew Rush is president & CEO, Made In Space, Inc. As the leader of Made in Space, Rush believes that manufacturing will enable humanity to sustainably live and work in space. He is a passionate supporter of space commercialization, cutting-edge technology, and Star Trek films.