It appears we’re one step closer to the strange-but-true concept of being able to manufacture products in space – and it’s no surprise that 3D printing plays a key role.
Silicon Valley-based Made In Space is primarily concerned with how the unique traits of the space environment – such as persistent microgravity and vacuum conditions – can be harnessed to offer new commercial solutions. “By manufacturing and assembling structures on orbit, rather than on the planet's surface,” says the company’s website, “we unlock incredible design possibilities for extending the life of current on-orbit assets or entirely new structures.”
More specifically, by setting up a prototyping platform on the ISS National Lab, the company says it gives researchers “the ability to prototype tools and designs in the environment of space with short iteration cycles.”
In early August, Made in Space announced an exciting development relating to its Archinaut project – a collaboration with NASA – which conducted the first large-scale additive manufacturing build in a space-like environment. According to NASA, the team printed large beam segments “similar to those used to construct a variety of space structures” in a vacuum where they and the printing equipment were subjected to the pressures and temperatures of deep space.
Eric Joyce, Archinaut project manager for Made In Space called it a “history-making test.” The eventual objective is to be able to construct hardware of unlimited size onsite in space. Up until this point, the only way to get hardware to space has been by launching it on rockets. Not to mention, conventional 3D printers just weren’t equipped for the rigors of the space environment, so Made in Space spent years modifying the technology to make it work.
One of the most interesting applications of in-space manufacturing technology, according to Steve Jurczyk, associate director of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, is in the search for life on other planets. Currently, scientists can't launch a telescope into space that's big enough to produce high-quality, color images of planets that orbit other stars to determine whether or not they could support life. With this technology, that just might be possible.