One Small Step for 3D Printing Satellites in the Vacuum of Space
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on August 10, 2017 | 6077 views

Given the already devastating effects of climate change and the lack of action on the part of developed nations, particularly the U.S., it’s no secret that billionaires like Elon Musk want to get off this planet. If they want to do so, however, they’re going to need somewhere to go.

The ESAMM system within the TVAC at NASA Ames. (Image courtesy of Made In Space.)

The ESAMM system within the TVAC at NASA Ames. (Image courtesy of Made In Space.)

Made In Space, which already has two 3D printers installed on the International Space Station (ISS), is looking to help humanity begin building structures in space. To do so, it has long been working on what it calls Archinaut, a robotic machine meant to 3D print and assemble large-scale structures in space.

In an interview with Made In Space President Andrew Rush earlier this year, Rush said that the company would have a demonstrator up and running later this summer. It looks as though that time has finally arrived as Made In Space publicly demonstrated its first use of the Archinaut system, formally titled the Extended Structure Additive Manufacturing Machine (ESAMM).

At NASA Ames Research Center’s Engineering Evaluation Laboratory (EEL), the ESAMM was put to work in a thermal vacuum chamber (TVAC), where it successfully operated in the vacuum and temperature environment of space. At the EEL TVAC facility, the ESAMM was able to 3D print a .85m-long part made from PEI/PC, commonly referred to with the brand name ULTEM.

On the ISS, Made In Space also 3D printed a structural segment of a space-optimized boom with the company’s Additive Manufacturing Facility 3D printer.

Further demonstrating the possibilities of the ESAMM system, Made In Space also 3Dprinted a 37-meter-long beam structure at its own facility.

Each piece of the Made In Space announcement represents the intended future for the Archinaut project as a whole: the ability to 3D print and assemble in space large-scale objects, such as satellites, solar arrays and even complete space station modules.

The company’s Archinaut technology actually assembles 3D-printed parts piece by piece using robotic arms. In the video below, you can see the ESAMM first 3D print a series of trusses and nodes before a duo of robotic arms locks them together. The structure seen in the video also includes embedded electrical connections.

Of the milestones, Rush said, “These successful demonstrations mean that on-demand, adaptable manufacturing of complex structures in space has been significantly derisked. This expands the design space. We hope that mission planners can now more confidently design missions around in-space manufacturing and assembly, optimizing satellites for their operational environment, not just launch.”

A diagram of the Archinaut system assembling a satellite in space. (Image courtesy of Made In Space.)
A diagram of the Archinaut system assembling a satellite in space. (Image courtesy of Made In Space.)

He added, “Satellites incorporating in-space manufacturing and assembly will inherently be more capable and provide more value to operators and users. We’re proud to be making this vision a reality and grateful for NASA’s support.”

In our interview with Rush, he explained that a small-scale ESAMM system will be shipped to a commercial customer this year, and could possibly be flown in the next year or two. The Archinaut project, funded by NASA, is about three years away from an on-orbit demonstration, in which Made In Space aims to launch a small satellite and assemble a large structure potentially over 10 meters in size.

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