3D Printing and Robotics Could Allow Us To Manufacture Spaceships In Space

Right now, most of what we send into space is built here on Earth. But soon, we may just send up raw materials and let robots do the building. This could be a major game-changer. Consider space telescopes. Today, they must be folded up to fit inside a rocket's nose cone. But if we can build them in orbit, cargo space isn't a factor. As long as we could figure out how to get the mirror elements up into space, a robot could build the rest of the enormous housing. Someday, we could even build entire spacecraft in space.

To try this out, we're turning to a hard-working robot named the Archinaut. It's essentially a 3D printer with robotic arms. According to the company behind it, the Archinaut will become a necessity: "A future in space that includes residences, industrial facilities, and transport stations needs platforms that allow us to manufacture and assemble large space systems in space."

Archinaut Reflector

Beyond The 3D Printer

There's already a 3D printer in space, and it's been there for a few years. On Earth, we use the printers to create medical devices, coral reefs and even shoes, but NASA enlisted a company called Made In Space to see how 3D printing could be done outside the atmosphere.

Made In Space specializes in "leveraging the unique properties of the space environment to develop solutions to commercial, industrial, research and defense challenges." So far, they've performed several tests with the 3D printer. One of the more notable prints, known as the ratchet, was able to be printed after the design was emailed to the ISS. That was the first time that's ever happened.

Archinaut takes the idea of 3D printing to the next level with "a platform that constructs, assembles, and integrates space-optimized systems into spacecraft," according to Made in Space. Although the system won't be that large, they're designing it to build satellites taller than the machinery itself.

Archinaut progression

No Packing Needed

We certainly aren't ready to move to space anytime soon, so why not just pack what you need before a mission? It's all about the conditions. Packing ahead of time means anything you bring up to space has to fit and must also be able to withstand takeoff. By waiting to make objects until they're already in space, astronauts eliminate several challenges.

"The real difference maker for this technology is in the area of being able to put stuff up that you can't origami fold up [for launch], or that would be really, really difficult to do with a traditional deployable system," said Made In Space CEO Andrew Rush.

According to NASA, another perk is the Archinaut system would "[remove] astronauts from harm's way." NASA awarded Made In Space and its team a $20 million technology development contract in 2016.

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Written by Haley Otman July 2, 2017

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