Space exploration missions and rocket launches may be exciting but they’re also terribly expensive. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are in a race to make launching spacecraft cheaper by reusing rockets but that’s just one aspect of the whole business. Assembling spaceships themselves takes up not just time and money but also space. One possible solution would be to 3D print the parts that make up a spacecraft and not on Earth but in outer space directly.
You might imagine scenes from sci-fi shows where gigantic spaceships are assembled in equally gigantic garages in orbit around the Earth. We’re still a long way from having that but this Archinaut One spacecraft may have one thing over its fictional counterparts. Rather than having components and materials launched from Earth, it will 3D print them in low Earth orbit or LEO.
That’s the idea that Made in Space, Inc. has proposed and NASA has just granted it a $73.7 million contract to demonstrate that possibility. In-space robotic manufacturing and assembly is going to be a game-changer if successful and could serve as an important part of the US’ Moon to Mars vision.
Archinaut One won’t be printing major parts immediately, of course. The demo spacecraft is small and will 3D print two beams that will extend 32 feet/10 meters from each side. Once fully extended, it will unfurl two solar panels that will supply the spacecraft with five times more power than its normal panels.
The Archinaut One is scheduled to launch in 2022 at the earliest, or at least that’s the plan. Made in Space already demonstrated its ability to 3D print structural beams in a facility that mimics outer space. Of course, the real challenge will be doing the real thing in the real environment.