Space manufacturing to be tested in 2018

An artists impression of an Archinaut facility building a dish-structure in orbit. Image courtesy of Made In Space.
An artist's impression of an Archinaut facility building a dish-structure in orbit. Image courtesy of Made In Space.

A US 3D-printing company is receiving funds from Nasa to demonstrate revolutionary new space manufacturing technology.

‘Made In Space’ a company which made headlines in 2014 for sending the first 3D-printer to the International Space Station (ISS) is now working on a much more complex project.

Armed with $20m of funding from Nasa, the company is working to develop robotic technology that can manufacture and assemble complex structures in orbit.

The project, called Archinaut, will be developed in cooperation with Northrop Grumman and Oceaneering Space Systems.

Archinaut will consist of an additive manufacturing facility built by Made in Space, augmented with interfaces and sensors produced by Northrop Grumman and a manipulator arm built by Oceaneering Space Systems.

This facility will be brought to the ISS, and attached as an external pod. Nasa has stipulated that the system be demonstrated in 2018, with an attempt to build a ‘complex structure’.

Before this however, Made In Space plans to launch the ‘Additive Manufacturing Facility’ within the next month, a large 3D-printer housed inside the ISS, able to produce a multitude of components in zero gravity out of polymer and aerospace grade composites.

According to Space News, Nasa expressed its hope at a press conference with Made in Space last month that this technology could accelerate the development of space technology.

“We are attempting to change the way we build space systems,” said Steve Jurcyk, associate administrator for Nasa’s Space Technology Mission Directorate

“Now, we build things on the ground and launch them using fairly expensive and complicated rockets. We are seeking to create an infrastructure to build systems in space rather than launching them.”

Space manufacturing advantages

Should the 2018 ‘Phase 1’ test of Archinaut be successful, it would pave the way for the eventual commercial viability of space manufacturing.

Unlike structures built on Earth and launched into space, those manufactured in-orbit can be much more delicately constructed without the concerns of gravity and launch stresses.

In addition, many parts for damaged spacecraft and satellites can be rapidly assembled on-demand, rather than having to wait for an available launch vehicle.