Manufacturing products with the intention of bringing them into space poses challenges for manufacturers and the crews in charge of launching them from Earth. Structures must be manufactured with launch stresses in mind. Not only that, structures in space don’t need to worry about the gravity that affects every structure built here on Earth. Furthermore, the need to launch new products into space come with a hefty price tag. Each shuttle launch can cost millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars and holds up back from reaching new worlds.
Now, a new initiative led by ‘Made In Space’, is bringing the world a new way to manufacture products directly on the International Space Station (ISS). This was also the company that brought the first 3D printer to the ISS to manufacture simple tools on the space station instead of having to schedule a launch to bring them up. A wrench was one of the first tools to be printed and the test was a success.
Made In Space will collaborate with Northrop Grumman and Oceaneering Space Systems to start on a project known as Archinaut. NASA provided $20 million in funds to develop robotic technology that would be able to manufacture and assemble complex structures while in orbit.
The hope is to create an additive manufacturing (AM) facility which will be built by Made In Space. It will include augmented interfaces and sensors which Northrop Grumman will produce and a manipulator arm provided by Oceaneering Space Systems.
This additive manufacturing facility will be brought up to the ISS where it will be attached and become an external pod. NASA hopes to begin a demonstration of the technology in 2018 where they will attempt to build a ‘complex structure’.
Made In Space has plans to bring the AM facility to the ISS within the next month.
“We are attempting to change the way we build space systems,” said Steve Jurcyk, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate “Now, we build things on the ground and launch them using fairly expensive and complicated rockets. We are seeking to create an infrastructure to build systems in space rather than launching them.” (http://bit.ly/1R0Olbe)
The key here is to cut costs associated with bringing up new equipment and machinery into space. This is an extremely costly process, and one that holds back our ability to utilize space as an asset. The US government has recently ‘okayed’ the prospect of mining in space. It would not be feasible with a traditional approach, the cost could potentially far outweigh the ROI. However, if there was a way for miners to manufacture all the equipment they would need in space, this could begin to become a realistic opportunity.
Beyond the possibility of mining in space, the ISS could benefit greatly from a manufacturing hub right next door. Critical components and other equipment can be manufactured on demand instead of needing to wait for the next available launch. This topic has gained a lot of attention as businesses private and public, look toward space for new opportunities. With this new initiative underway, we could be one step closer utilizing a vast resource that was previously untouchable.