In the realm of space exploration and technology, a fascinating concept has emerged that has the potential to reshape how we approach manufacturing and assembly beyond the confines of our planet. This concept is known as “in-orbit manufacturing.” Unlike traditional manufacturing methods that heavily rely on launching fully assembled products from Earth, in-orbit manufacturing envisions creating goods and materials directly in the microgravity environment of space. By harnessing the unique conditions and opportunities offered by space, this innovative approach holds the promise of revolutionising various industries and opening new frontiers in both technology and commerce.
What is In-Orbit Manufacturing?
In-orbit manufacturing refers to the concept of producing goods and materials directly in space, rather than launching them from Earth. This approach leverages the unique conditions of space to manufacture products that might be challenging or impossible to produce on Earth, or to reduce the costs and complexities associated with launching fully assembled products from our planet.
What are the benefits of In-Orbit Manufacturing?
In-Orbit manufacturing, also known as In-Space manufacturing or ISM, allows for longer-duration space missions as astronauts can fabricate supplies during flight to prolong space travel. These capabilities also reduce launch mass, which makes launch more cost effective, as well as significantly reducing risk due to decreasing dependence on spares and/or over-designing systems for reliability. The flexibility of space missions could also be improved with this innovation. Longer term plans could include whole off-planet factories that could vastly reduce emissions on earth and potentially utilize off world resources like regolith (moondust) to build structures.
Where we are now in terms of In-Orbit Manufacturing?
We already succeeded previously in 3D printing plastic on a smaller scale on the International Space Station (ISS) all the way back in 2014. A printhead faceplate, engraved with names of the organizations that collaborated on this space station technology demonstration: NASA and Made In Space, Inc., the space manufacturing company that worked with NASA to design, build and test the 3D printer.
Since then, Made In Space have made huge steps in the field of ISM and have set up a facility on the ISS that produces ZBLAN optical fibre. This fibre is the most stable and popular fluoride glass because it offers 1/10th the signal loss of silica-based fibres. On earth this product is tricky to make as gravity can cause small crystals to form that lessen signal strength, but Made In Space have utilised the lack of gravity to improve the efficiency of their fibres, and have broken new ground as the first commercial product to be manufactured aboard the ISS and sold commercially on Earth. They currently have multiple other products under development for future ISS missions such as industrial crystal growth and additive and subtractive manufacturing of metal alloys.
For larger structure in-space manufacturing, in 2016 Made in Space partnered with Northrop Grumman and Oceaneering Space Systems and received a grant from NASA of $20 Million (increased to $73.7 Million in 2019) to build a 3D printer-complete with robot arm- in a project called Archinaut, which would allow them to create solar arrays in orbit. Northrop Grumman provided systems engineering, control electronics, software, testing and assistance with Archinaut’s space station interface, while MIS and OSS handled the printer and arm design. This design, after many years of building and testing, will be launched on a Falcon 9 rocket (Flight Mission Archinaut One) sometime in 2024. If successful, this will demonstrate the technology’s ability to reduce risk and achieve measurable cost savings over traditional cargo launches to space.
We are also seeing other companies following in Made In Space’s footsteps, with Airbus planning on launching their own 3D metal printer into space sometime next year. If this is successful, they will look to building their own ‘space factory’ where they can build large structures, sourcing production materials from space debris floating around. This will mean less rocket launches will be needed for supplies, improving the overall sustainability of the enterprise.
This idea of a ‘factory on the moon’ may sound far-fetched to you and I, but NASA have said that if these launches go well, this idea could well become reality. In the very near future “an in-space robotic manufacturing system could be adapted to support a variety of applications…. It could also have in-situ, or onsite, planetary applications, emplacing a power grid, fuel depot or other built-on-the-spot requirement on the surface of the Moon or Mars.”
These exciting developments, paired with the continued progress of growing plants in space, the off-planet colony from that sci-fi movie you grew up watching (looking at you, Alien and Total Recall) could exist one day.
Join us at the Space Suppliers Summit conference, where you can hear more from experts who have dedicated their careers to unravelling the complexities of in-orbit manufacturing. From understanding the intricacies of microgravity environments to developing state-of-the-art robotic systems and 3D printing technologies that can function autonomously amidst the challenges of space, we know these sessions will provide us with insights that are as enlightening as they are inspiring.