NASA Grants Funding to Made in Space
Dr Jody Muelaner posted on July 31, 2019 |

NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) has granted funding to Made In Space to build and launch an autonomous robotic manufacturing and assembly platform named Archinaut. Significantly, this looks to be the first system to manufacture useful commercial structures in space.

NASA has already funded initial development work which started in 2016. The successful ground-based testing of core additive manufacturing and robotic technologies has now qualified the Archinaut platform for spaceflight. These trials included demonstrating additive manufacturing and robotic assembly in a space-like environment. Thermal vacuum testing was carried out at Northrop Grumman’s Space Park facility to simulate the thermal and pressure environment of a satellite in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Under these conditions, the system was able to autonomously produce reversible connection and joining of 3D-printed parts such as nodes and trusses. The system will now be demonstrated on a flight mission to construct two ten-meter solar arrays in orbit, providing power to an operational satellite.

Space-based manufacturing has distinct advantages and challenges, due to the microgravity, vacuum and extreme temperatures. These conditions may in themselves provide specialized opportunities to produce unique materials, such as crystal structures grown in microgravity. There is also enormous potential to create a heavy industry in space. Materials captured by redirecting asteroids into Earth orbit, or directly mining them in the asteroid belt could one day provide levels of resources far beyond what Earth can sustain. This could enable the construction of solar power plants in space, able to provide vast amounts of energy to be beamed back to earth, to deep space exploration craft or used within orbital manufacturing plants. Space may also prove the right place for dirty and dangerous processes.

“Autonomous, robotic manufacturing and assembly will reshape the landscape of space exploration and space infrastructure and we are taking a monumental step towards that future,” said Andrew Rush, President and CEO of Made in Space Inc. “Through our partnership with NASA, we will build a space-optimized asset on-orbit, for the first time, that will prove the efficacy of this technology, reduce the risk posture, and manifest new opportunities for in space manufacturing.

History of Space-Based Manufacturing

There have been many trials carried out into space manufacturing over the years. As early as 1969, cosmonauts welded stainless steel, aluminum and titanium samples. When America’s first space station has launched in 1973, it included several facilities for experimental manufacturing in space. Tests carried out included processing of molten metals, crystal growth, electron beam welding and brazing stainless steel tubes. These areas of research continued using the Space Shuttle’s Spacelab module as well as unmanned satellites such as the Foton-M2 laboratory launched in 2005.

Perhaps the most extensive facility for experimental space manufacturing has been the International Space Station (ISS). It houses facilities used to study the melting and solidification properties of various materials as well as 3D printing. The Made in Space3D printer was first launched in 2014 and has performed a wide range of experiments. The Refabricator, an integrated 3D printer and plastic recycler, was installed on the ISS earlier this year. This system uses protrusion to create new filaments from unwanted 3D-printed parts. It then uses the Filament Deposition Modelling (FDM) technique to 3D-print new parts using this material.

The Archinaut One Mission

The Archinaut One mission aims to construct two ten-meter solar arrays in orbit. These will power ESPA-class satellites, proving almost five times the power available from these satellites’ current solar arrays. Archinaut One will use extended structure additive manufacturing capabilities to construct structural elements and then assemble these together with photovoltaic panels to complete the solar arrays.

The project is led by Made in Space Inc. working in partnership with Northrop Grumman as well as a number of other companies and universities. Northrop Grumman also supported the first stage of Archinaut development involving ground trials.

“The Archinaut One mission is a critical proof point to validate the use of robotic manufacturing and assembly for space exploration and commercialization activities,” said Michael Snyder, Chief Engineer at Made in Space Inc. “These technologies allow us to circumvent the design constraints imposed by the launch environment and create space optimized structures and assemblies thereby demonstrating unprecedented capabilities.”

The 3D-printing element of the Archinaut system is the Extended Structure Additive Manufacturing Machine (ESAMM). This can produce structural members of indefinite length by feeding the structure out of the 3D printer as it is produced. Without gravity, no support structures are required to hold the emerging structure, meaning there is no practical limit to the length of these structures. Only the build volume of the machine limits the cross section. ESAMM holds the record for the world's longest 3D-printed non-assembled piece, a beam with a length of 123.69 feet (37.7 meters). In addition to long structural members such as tubes and trusses, the ESAMM is also able to produce nodes used to join the members together into larger trusses. ESAMM is capable of producing structures in plastics, metals and composites. It was the first machine to successfully manufacture in a space-like environment.

Robotic arms are used to join the 3D-printed tubes and nodes into complete structures, as well as to assemble electronics and power components.

The significance of the Archinaut One mission is that it will demonstrate that there are current commercial benefits to be gained from manufacturing in space. For the satellite industry, this could mean more robust satellite systems that enable power-intensive payloads to be launched with reduced mass. This could dramatically alter the cost-benefit balance for satellite design, transforming the economics of the satellite industry. Archinaut’s multi-purpose technology will also enable repair, upgrade, and sustainment missions which will ultimately play a key role in space commercialization.

Made In Space was established in 2010 and is now probably the most experienced in-space manufacturing company. It aims to use the unique properties of the space environment to develop manufacturing solutions to commercial, industrial, research and defense challenges. Their flagship program, Archinaut, enables in-space production and assembly of the backbone structures for large telescopes, repair, augmentation, or repurposing of existing spacecraft, and unmanned assembly of new space stations. The company’s vision is to enable the future of space exploration by offering off-Earth manufacturing capabilities.

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