A technological revolution opening the frontier of space to unprecedented human expansion
How 3-D Printing is Revolutionizing Space Travel
If you’re like most people, you have probably never heard of Made In Space (MIS). A small space manufacturing firm founded in 2010, MIS has been often forgotten amidst all of the hype around billionaire captains of space exploration like Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos. But despite its humble size, it is pioneering the technological revolution that may pry open the frontier of space to unprecedented human expansion.
Made In Space’s crowning achievement is Archinaut, an in-space manufacturing and robotic assembly technology developed in partnership with NASA. Fusing the roles of architect and astronaut, Archinaut will be the first 3-D printer to build large, complex, functional structures in space.
“This technology has been desired for years,” said Austin Jordan, communications manager for Made In Space. “And now for the first time, with the Archinaut One mission, we have the opportunity to see that come to fruition.” Archinaut will be able to construct a wide range of equipment such as telescopes, satellites and antennas. “It’s very much akin to what you might see in sci-fi,” he continued. “And we see manufacturing as the enabler of the expansion of humanity’s presence further from the surface of the Earth.”So how does it work? Unlike other space manufacturing technologies, Archinaut can produce structures larger than the printer itself. To do this, it gets fed raw material such as polymer, then slowly churns out the product with the help of a computer that Jordan calls the “brain.” A robotic arm constantly manipulates the printer to position it correctly. All the while MIS’s ground team monitors it from Earth to ensure everything runs smoothly.
Traditionally, space agencies have had to pack everything they may or may not need into a rocket, hope it doesn’t break, then launch it using enough fuel to pollute a small town. With Archinaut, products can be manufactured on orbit as they are needed, making space travel more cost-effective and fuel-efficient. “Robotic manufacturing assembly gives you not only the opportunity to build using raw materials on orbit; it also gives you the opportunity to fix or repair components that might be damaged over time,” Jordan said.
Beyond simply making current missions easier, the technology enables projects hitherto thought impossible. For example, it could build baseline telescopes that reach as long as 50 meters, well above what the present paradigm is capable of. Other materials can be processed in space to exhibit novel and even superior properties under conditions that can’t be duplicated back on Earth.
Archinaut One is only the first iteration of its kind. In the future, Jordan sees more advanced models being used to support even more ambitious projects such as permanent settlements on the Moon or Mars. “There are definitely lunar applications,” he said. “Archinaut technology could be adapted to support surface infrastructure.” And in that case, raw material from the Moon itself could potentially be used to build structures, obviating the need to transport metals or plastics from Earth.
The ability to construct and repair habitats, launch pads and other infrastructure on the lunar surface is integral to future Mars missions. NASA plans to send the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024 as part of its Artemis program and establish a permanent human presence there within the decade, laying the foundation for a “lunar economy.” From there, bases could be used as a springboard to reach Mars.
The United States is not alone, however. China plans to send another probe to the Moon this year and establish a space station by 2022. In December, it successfully launched its Long March-5 rocket, nicknamed the “Fat Five,” one of the most powerful of its kind in the world. Although countries such as Russia, India and the United Arab Emirates are also pressing forward with their space programs, the Sino-American rivalry could resemble the Space Race of the 1960s, a time when geopolitical pressures resulted in rapid scientific breakthroughs while also bringing the world’s superpowers to the brink of nuclear war.
The Archinaut program will undoubtedly advantage one side in the new race, and Made In Space is clear about where its allegiance lies. “Any company or organization that would be considered an adversary to our domestic agencies without a doubt would not be countries we would be doing business with,” Jordan said. “When you talk about applications for defense, I think of building better antennas that can support any kind of defense priorities, or building more cost-effective satellites for imaging and surveillance.”
Made In Space was recently acquired by Redwire, a subsidiary of private equity firm AE Industrial Partners that is rolling up numerous small space companies. The Archinaut One satellite is slated to fly in 2022. After years of research and testing, NASA approved it for the demonstration flight last year. Once it enters orbit, Archinaut will manufacture two ten meter long solar arrays to power itself. The arrays will generate nearly five times the power currently available to such satellites. The success or failure of the mission will set the mood not just for the future of MIS but in-space assembly and manufacturing as an industry.