NASA has just signed a contract worth around $73 million to support a project to 3D-print bulky components while orbiting in space, rather than bring them up. Project Archinaut, “The first platform designed to manufacture large structures for space, in space”, is a mission that has been in development for several years by Made In Space, which could launch as soon as 2022. Made In Space, Inc. is an America-based company, specializing in the engineering and manufacturing of three-dimensional printers for use in micro-gravity.
The main problem is available space. Imagine you want a spacecraft to have solar arrays that are 60 feet long. Then you would need to bring 60 feet of structure for those arrays to attach to – they can’t just be floating around. But where would you stash so many large-sized components when you only have a few cubic feet of space available to store them? It’s a really hard task to take these massive components into space without having so much available space to store them in, and their size and dimensions do not help.
Project Archinaut is the perfect solution. Why not just take the material for that large component into space and print it out right on the spot? This would be the best way to bring the material for these components, while keeping it as a single compact block of solid matter. While some components would need way too much material, making them too big to take into space in one single piece, they could be made out of smaller ones, if necessary. Made in Space already has contracts in place with NASA and has demonstrated 3D printing of parts aboard the International Space Station. It has also demonstrated the ability to print stuff in an artificial vacuum, in a way to recreate space’s environment.
The Archinaut One mission is set to launch aboard a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle no earlier than 2022. After achieving a stable orbit, it will begin releasing a pair of beams that’ll extend out 32 feet. There will also be flexible solar arrays attached to the beams that’ll unfold the same way. When everything’s finished, a robotic arm will lock the new components into place and start performing other maintenance tasks.
After finished, the pair of 32-foot solar arrays could generate around five times the power that a spacecraft that size normally would. These spacecrafts are usually power-starved systems and having more watts available to use or store for the space equivalent of a rainy day would be a game changer.
In-space manufacturing is still a big concern for a country planning to establish a permanent presence on and around the Moon. It’s way easier to 3D print big components while in orbit rather than having multiple quarter-million-mile deliveries made.