NASA Awards Contract for 3D Printing in Orbit

The technology could make it easier to reach the Moon and Mars.

NASA has awarded a $73.3 million contract to Made In Space to 3D print spacecraft components in space. Manufacturing would take place on board the Archinaut One platform—a robotic manufacturing base that will launch as early as 2022.

Archinaut One will launch on a Rocket Lab Electron. Once in orbit, the small spacecraft will 3D print a pair of 32-foot beams out from each of its sides. As production progresses, each beam will unfurl into two solar arrays. According to NASA, these arrays could produce up to five times more power than those in use by similarly sized small spacecraft.

The spacecraft has already successfully printed structural beams in a NASA facility that mimics the conditions of space: a thermal vacuum chamber at the Ames Research Center.

That project demonstrated that Made In Space’s printers and printed materials could withstand the harsh temperatures and pressures of space—where the average temperature is -457.87°Fand there is almost no gravity or pressure. The next step is actually printing the materials in orbit.

“In-space robotic manufacturing and assembly are unquestionable game changers and fundamental capabilities for future space exploration,” said NASA’s Jim Reuter, associate administrator of the Space Technology Mission Directorate.

If the project is successful, it could transform space exploration—especially with the push to return to the Moon and travel to Mars. One of the biggest obstacles to these goals is the strict limitations on how much material can be carried aboard a spacecraft. But if materials can be built in space—on demand—then that would reduce the need to weigh down the vehicle when it’s trying to escape Earth’s gravity. 3D printing in space would enable the construction of complex structures in orbit. It could also reduce the need for astronauts to perform dangerous and expensive spacewalks to perform repairs.

In addition, it could enable countries and private companies to launch small vehicles—saving costs, time and fuel. These small craft could either supply, or be incorporated into, larger and more powerful structures once in orbit.

“This technology will help humans go back to the Moon and on to Mars by lowering the cost of delivering capabilities in and beyond,” said Andrew Rush, president and chief executive officer of Made In Space.

Want to read more about plans for manufacturing stuff in space? Check out China to Build a Gigawatt Power Station in Space.