Nasa awards $20m contract to Made In Space to develop in-space manufacturing

Silicon Valley-based company, Made in Space, has a chance to live up to its company name after being selected by NASA to lead the next phase in the ongoing development of in-space manufacturing.

Made in Space was awarded a two-year, $20m contract from NASA in November and the company is now working with Northrop Grumman and Oceaneering Space Systems on the NASA project ‘Archinaut’.

Archinaut is an ambitious effort to build a robotic arm equipped with a 3D printer which will be installed in an external space station pod.

The Archinaut project will culminate in 2018 with an on-orbit demonstration of its ability to additively manufacture and assemble a large, complex structure.

The Archinaut project, officially known as the Versatile In-Space Robotic Precision Manufacturing and Assembly System, is designed to develop the necessary technologies and subsystems which will enable the first additive manufacturing, aggregation and assembly of a large and complex systems in space without astronauts needing to assist in the manufacturing process.

If the 2018 tests prove successful and show that Archinaut can perform as planned, Made in Space and its partners hope to continue the project by enlarging the additive manufacturing element and equipping it with additional robotic arms. The new version of Archinaut would be capable of latching onto orbiting structures to add or remove components, eventually enabling companies to remove parts from decommissioned spacecraft and use the parts in new spacecraft while cleaning up debris at the same time.

Associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, Steve Jurcyk, said the selection of Made in Space for the Archinaut project signalled a change in how the space agency was manufacturing.

“We are attempting to change the way we build space systems,” he said.

“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.”

Made in Space envisions Archinaut enabling spacecraft which manufacture and assemble unlaunchable structures once on orbit, enabling new mission capabilities such as large antennas and base stations.

What will be Made in Space?

Objects most likely to be made in space include communications satellite reflectors and other large structures.

If the Archinaut project proves successful, the on-orbit manufacturing and assembly it offers could revolutionise spacecraft design because engineers would no longer need to create structures capable of withstanding the force of Earth’s gravity before they launch or the vibration and acoustic forces of launch.

The Made In Space team with a functional duplicate of the Microgravity Science Glovebox enclosure in which its 3D printer is housed in space - image courtesy of Made in Space
The Made In Space team with a functional duplicate of the Microgravity Science Glovebox enclosure in which its 3D printer was housed during its 2014 test – image courtesy of Made in Space.

Made in Space is the Silicon Valley startup that sent the first 3D printer to the International Space Station in 2014, and also provided the Additive Manufacturing Facility (a large printer) which was launched to the space station on March 22, 2016.

The Archinaut project follows Made in Space’s previous work with NASA in developing additive manufacturing for space.

The “3D Printing in Zero-G Experiment” is currently deployed on the International Space Station, while the Additive Manufacturing Facility launched in March.

Made in Space was founded in 2010 as the world’s first space manufacturing company, with the goal of enabling humanity’s future in space.

It plans to accelerate and broaden space development by manufacturing space assets in space as opposed to launching them from Earth.