California-based startup Made in Space has been awarded $73.7 million dollars by NASA to test a construction robot that will 3D print and assemble a giant solar panel array while orbiting the Earth. If successful, the company’s “Archinaut One” demonstration craft’s technology may contribute to NASA’s Moon to Mars mission. The project is anticipated to launch in 2022 aboard a Rocket Lab Electron rocket.
While in orbit, Archinaut One will print two 32-foot-long support beams that will have attached solar arrays unfurl as they extend. Once fully operational, the arrays will generate as much as five times more power than traditional solar panels on crafts similar in size, putting the power system capabilities in line with those currently reserved for larger satellites.
Made In Space’s technology could also be extended to satellite repair, in-space construction of communications equipment and space telescopes, as well as other complex structures that typically have to be specially designed to withstand a rocket launch. On-orbit construction could also eliminate volume limits from rocket cargo space requirements.
“In-space robotic manufacturing and assembly are unquestionable game-changers and fundamental capabilities for future space exploration,” associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, Jim Reuter, was quoted as saying in the funding announcement.
Made in Space has been working with NASA since 2016 under the agency’s Tipping Point program, a public-private partnership to develop commercial space capabilities. Technologies qualify as “at a ‘tipping point’ if an investment in a demonstration of its capabilities will result in a significant advancement of the technology’s maturation, high likelihood of infusion into a commercial space application, and significant improvement in the ability to successfully bring the technology to market,” according to NASA’s blog post on the program.
Watch an animation demonstrating the Archinaut One test mission below:
The democratization of space travel absolutely requires its commercialization, in my opinion, and technologies like this are very exciting progressions towards that end. I definitely jump far into the future when I see things like “orbiting construction robot” with visions of glamorous torroidal space cities made famous in atomic age art. I’m actually more of a deep space habitation proponent than I am a Mars or Moon habitation proponent, but that’s probably because I’m a Trekkie.
Wernher von Braun had an on-orbit construction plan that would take humans to Mars, so this tech seems to be a nod to that direction. However, I’m curious about the benefit of 3D printing things in space vs. producing parts on Earth for on-orbit assembly instead. Rocket costs go by weight, from what I understand, so the fillament needed for parts would weigh the same. I suppose there’s a trade on part flexibility vs. printing time. Overall, it will be very cool to watch what happens with Made in Space’s tech.
Here are two other animations of Made In Space’s planned technology: