As I’ve mentioned in several episodes now, humanity is in a bit of a transition period, a time when it makes sense to launch material up and out of Earth’s gravity well into orbit, and beyond. But it’s really expensive, costing up to $10,000 per pound you want in orbit, and 10 times if you want it on the Moon.
But over the coming decades, more and more of our space-based infrastructure will be built in space, manufactured out of materials that were mined in space.
The only thing that’ll actually need to leave the Earth’s clingy gravity well will be us, the humans, the tourists, wanting to visit all that space infrastructure.
Of course, in order to achieve that space future, engineers and mission planners will need to design and construct the technology that will make this possible.
That means testing out new prototypes, technologies and methodologies for mining and space-based manufacturing.
This is an example of the kind of telecommunications satellite that’s regularly launched into space. The size and shape of its solar panels are dependent on the reality that Earth’s gravity… sucks. Any spacecraft built needs to be able to handle the full gravity down here on Earth, throughout the testing phase.
Then it needs to be able to handle the brutal acceleration, shaking and other forces of launch. Once it reaches orbit, it needs to unfold its solar panels into a configuration that can generate power for the spacecraft.
As always, I just need to say the words, James Webb Space Telescope, to put you into a state of panic and dread, imagining the complexity and origami precision that needs to happen more than a million kilometers from Earth, in a place that can’t be serviced.
Now, take a look at this artist’s illustration of a satellite whose solar panels were built entirely in orbit, never experiencing the rigors of Earth gravity. They’re comically, hilariously large. And as it turns out, efficient and cost effective.
Imagine the International Space Station with solar panels that were three times longer, but still perfectly strong and stable in the microgravity environment of low-Earth orbit.
This is the technology that Made in Space’s Archinaut One will be testing out as early as 2022, bringing us one step closer to that space-based manufacturing that I keep going on about.
In July, 2019, NASA announced that had awarded $73.7 million dollars to Made In Space, a 3D manufacturing company based in Mountain View, California.
This contract will help fund the construction and launch of the company’s Archinaut One spacecraft, which will then demonstrate the manufacturing and assembly of spacecraft components in space.
They’re going to build a spacecraft that’ll assemble its own power system. In space.
If all goes well, Archinaut One will head off to space on board a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from New Zealand as early as 2022.
Once it reaches orbit, the spacecraft will construct two ten-meter solar arrays, enough to power an industry standard 200-kg satellite. The kind of satellite that serves as a secondary payload on larger launches. Generally they’re underpowered, with only a few hundred watts of power available to them.
Archinaut One will 3D-print the support beams, and then unfurl the solar panels on either side of the spacecraft.
By manufacturing the entire array in space, the smaller satellite will have the power capabilities of a much larger spacecraft – 5 times the power – able to power more science instruments, communication instruments, etc.
This makes sense here in Earth orbit, but it makes even more sense deeper into the Solar System, where the amount of solar power available to a spacecraft drops away.
NASA’s Juno spacecraft is currently visiting Jupiter, the 4-tonne spacecraft has three 9-meter solar arrays containing 18,698 solar cells. Here at Earth, they’re capable of generating 14 kilowatts of electricity. But out at the orbit of Jupiter, the solar cells get just 1/25th amount of sunlight to work with.
NASA has been investing into several technologies which it calls “tipping points”. These are technologies which are too risky or complicated for aerospace firms to profitably develop. But if NASA can reduce the risks, they could benefit commercial space exploration.
This was the second contact awarded to Made in Space for the Archinaut program. The first contract, awarded back in 2016, was for a ground-based test of Archinaut.
It was put into Northrop Grumman’s thermal vacuum testing environment, which can mimic the temperature extremes and low pressure of the near-vacuum of space.
Inside the chamber, Archinaut was able to manufacture and assemble various structures. It demonstrated that it could assemble pre-fabricated components like nodes and trusses completely autonomously, as well as various repair operations.
With this test out of the way, the next stage will be to test out the technology in space, with the launch of Archinaut One ideally by 2022.
In addition to the Archinaut program, NASA has been working with Made in Space for several years now.
The most famous of this partnership is the Additive Manufacturing Facility (or AMF), currently on board the International Space Station, which arrived in March 2016, providing an upgrade to the station’s previous printer.
Over the last few years, this printer has crafted dozens of objects in the microgravity environment of orbit out of polyethylene. But the AMF is able to print with different materials such as metals and composites.
The partnership with Made in Space allows NASA to craft replacement parts, and repair broken pieces of the station in orbit. But it also allows Made in Space to test out their more ambitious plans for full space-based manufacturing.
In 2018, NASA awarded them a Phase 2 Small Business Innovation Research award for their Vulcan manufacturing system. This is a space-based manufacturing system that can work with 30 different feedstock materials, like aluminum, titanium or plastic composites to print 3D items.
Vulcan will also be able to subtract material, machining parts down to their final shapes. And it’ll all be done robotically. The goal is to build high-strength, high-precision polymer and metallic components in orbit to the same level of quality as the stuff you can buy down here on Earth.
Made in Space is also testing out the technology to manufacture optical fibers in space. These fibers transmit a tremendous amount of data, but the signal needs to be boosted across longer transmission distances. There’s a special kind of crystal called ZBLAN which could have a tenth or even a hundredth the signal loss of traditional fibers, but it’s hard to manufacture in Earth-gravity.
A recent experiment delivered to the International Space Station will manufacture these ZBLAN fibers in space, hopefully producing up to 50 km at a time. As launch costs are reduced, it might even make economical sense to manufacture fiber optic cables in space and then bring them back to Earth.
But it also makes a lot of sense to keep them in space, to make more sophisticated satellite hardware that’s never known Earth-gravity.
Made in Space is also working on technology that will recycle polyethylene back into new 3D printed items. When it’s so expensive to fly cargo into orbit, it makes recycle what you’ve already sent to space, and save it from getting dumped overboard to burn up in orbit.
These are all just pieces of a much larger technology strategy that Made in Space is working towards – the goal of a full space-based manufacturing and assembly system.
In the future, satellites, telescopes and other space-based hardware will be designed down here on Earth. Then the raw materials will be launched to space with an Archinaut manufacturing system.
Archinaut will manufacture all the component parts using its 3D printer, and then they’ll be assembled together in space.
Made in Space has two flavors of Archinaut they’re proposing right now. The DILO system looks like an octagonal canister surrounded by solar panels with a robotic arm poking out the top.
Inside the canister are all the raw materials for a space-based communications antenna. The arm takes folded reflector panels and then assembles them. It uses 3D printing to attach the panels, and then they’re unfolded into a communications dish.
The spacecraft then uses a 3D printer to manufacture and extrude a communications boom from its center.
The more advanced version is called ULISSES. It’s a version of Archinaut with three robotic arms surrounding a 3D printer. The spacecraft manufactures various trusses and nodes and then uses its arms to assemble them into larger and larger structures. With this technology, they’re really only limited by the amount of raw materials the spacecraft has to work with.
It could build space telescopes dozens or even hundreds of meters across.
The pieces are coming together for true space-based manufacturing and assembly. As early as 2022, we’ll see a spacecraft assemble its own solar panels in space, creating a structure that never needs to experience Earth gravity.
And in the coming years, we’ll see larger and larger spacecraft built almost entirely in orbit. And eventually, I hope, they’ll be made out of material harvested from the Solar System.
Some day, we’ll see the launch of the last cargo rocket. The last time we bothered carrying anything out of Earth’s massive gravity well and out into space. From then on, it’ll only be tourists.