Made In Space is hoping to make in-orbit satellite construction a reality.
Back in 2014, Made In Space became the first company to build and operate additive manufacturing hardware in space when their hardware completed the first mission phase of NASA’s 3D Printing in Zero-G Technology Demonstration. In total, the machine produced 24 parts that have since been returned to Earth for laboratory analysis. As it turns out, this was merely the beginning of the California-based startup’s elaborate plan which includes a commercial-scale 3D printer, the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF).
Just the other day, Made In Space announced a breakthrough in their efforts to develop manufacturing technologies for extra terrestrial applications. Following in the footsteps of 3D printing objects on the International Space Station, the team has been devising new ways to operate outside the ISS. Last month, the startup successfully completed a round of tests, proving that their next generation of 3D printers can work in the vacuum of space.
“We believe we are as little as 18 months away from incorporating the current designs into on-orbit tests,” explained Mike Snyder, Chief Engineer at Made In Space, “These preliminary tests, combined with our experience with microgravity additive manufacturing, show that the direct manufacturing of structures in space is possible using Made In Space developed technologies. Soon, structures will be produced in space that are much larger than what could currently fit into a launch fairing, designed for microgravity rather than launch survivability. Complete structural optimization is now possible in space.”
For this phase, Made In Space tested a modified version of their AMF — which is expected to fly later this year — with their proprietary vacuum-compatible extrusion heads, and accumulated over a week of testing inside a vacuum chamber. Various specimens were produced using aerospace-grade thermopolymers to test how the deposition process works in the vacuum environment. While preliminary results suggest that the 3D printing process worked as expected, Made in Space will be analyzing the finished parts to determine if any mechanical properties differ from items created in Earth’s atmosphere.
If all goes to plan, Made In Space would then be theoretically able to place 3D printers into orbit outside of the ISS, if supplied with sufficient raw material. Raw material can be delivered more efficiently to orbit as it could be packed very densely, unlike the prints it would turn into.
On top of that, the startup has revealed another project, which would pave the way for the first off-Earth assembly line. To accomplish this, Made In Space has partnered with NanoRacks to develop an orbital construction-and-deployment service for tiny CubeSats that they are calling “Stash & Deploy.” This service will leverage NanoRacks’ experience in CubeSat deployment and Made In Space’s in-space 3D printing capabilities to deliver on-demand satellite manufacturing and assembly for developers.
A variety of standard and customer-specific satellite components will be cached aboard a satellite deployment platform, such as the ISS. Many of these parts will be built using Made In Space’s AMF, and “stashed” for rapid manufacture of CubeSats.
The idea is that customers will be able to easily and quickly design their satellite or request a satellite be designed based on their requirements. From there, the optimized structure will be created on orbit and the necessary components will be integrated. The satellite will then be deployed into low Earth orbit. The entire assembly and deployment process will occur in a fraction of the time necessary to construct, manifest, launch and deploy satellites from the ground.
“This is a fundamental shift for satellite production,” adds Andrew Rush, President of Made In Space. “In the near future, we envision that satellites will be manufactured quickly and to the customer’s exact needs, without being overbuilt to survive launch or have to wait for the next launch.”
The first steps of the Stash & Deploy system are slated for early 2016. Read all about both endeavors on Made In Space’s website here.