This Company Could Revolutionize Building in Space
One company is reshaping the way scientists could manufacture the future of space exploration. The California-based Made in Space company creates polymer-alloy materials using 3-D printing. The biggest selling point? The additive manufacturing takes place in space. The company hopes to not only save resources but also accelerate development by making needed parts in space.
Made in Space already owns and operates the commercial 3D printer found on the International Space Station. However, their latest technology -- the Archinaut project -- takes everything one step further.
Archinaut combines a traditional 3D printer and robotic actuated arms into one space gadget. There are two missions to the project: the ULISSES and DILO. Both satellites combine together and can manufacture a basic truss in less than an hour.
Hearing from Made in Space Executives
Andrew Rush serves as president of Made in Space, based in Silicon Valley. We got to ask him a few questions during the launch of Made in Space’s Archinaut project.
Interesting Engineering (IE): Generally speaking, how are printing operations affected by zero-gravity conditions?
Andrew Rush (AR): Microgravity completely changes the operational environment for 3D printing. In many cases, because we are not limited by gravity, we can manufacture shapes and designs that wouldn’t be possible on Earth.
Another physical property that behaves very differently in space is heat. We’ve learned that you have to be very precise with your operational and temperature controls when it comes to 3D printing in space. In the absence of natural convection, we had to develop special techniques to control the manufacturing environment.
IE: What are some ways the ISS, NASA, the ESA and other space entities can apply your technology into their work?
AR: Right now, we are manufacturing on a weekly basis with our Additive Manufacturing Facility for NASA aboard the International Space Station. With Archinaut, we see tremendous potential for both government and commercial customers. Satellite deployment is one exciting opportunity area.
IE: What sparked your interests in additive manufacturing?
AR: Our company vision is to support humans living and working off Earth. We understood that one limitation to space exploration was the lack of manufacturing capability. When we’re already so limited by size and weight in terms of what we can take to space, it’s important to be as efficient as possible. We thought, “why not send a 3D printer with a digital catalogue of all things astronauts might need,” thus eliminating the physical space that all those items would normally take up. That way, astronauts have the ability to print an object when they need it, and recycle it and recreate it into another object when needed. To explore beyond Earth, you need the ability to build things that you can’t take with you. Once we decided on that path, we set out to investigate how to adapt 3D printing technology for space.
IE: What specifically appealed to you about space?
AR: Additive manufacturing technology allows us to make things for space in space. It eliminates gravity from the manufacturing equation. It allows you to design structures for the space environment versus having to survive launch first. This allows us to manufacture more cost effectively and build at scales much larger than previously possible.
One of the beauties about developing technologies for space is you learn during development that many have applications for back on Earth. We’re actually doing that with a 3D printing product we call TAC3D we are developing to operate in extreme environments back on Earth.
Successes with Materials
This summer, the company started using a polyetherimide/polycarbonate (PEI/PC), a high-performance polymer specifically for its additive manufacturing on the ISS. PEI/PC is crucial to heat-resistant 3D printing.
In a press release, Rush noted that PEI/PC can expand and stretch the current limits of what the company can print in space.
"PEI/PC is a truly space-capable material," he noted. "With it, extravehicular activity (EVA) tools and repairs, stronger and more capable intravehicular activity (IVA) tools, spares, and repairs, and even satellite structure can be created on site, on demand. That enables safer, less mass-intensive missions and scientific experiments."
The new polymer directly benefits MIS's Archinaut building program.
“PEI/PC gives us greater capabilities to start working with materials that have characteristics needed for advanced manufacturing in the space environment,” added Matt Napoli, MIS vice president of In-Space Operations.
Most recently, the company developed radiation shielding which wrapped up testing aboard the ISS two weeks ago.
"These relatively inexpensive and small tests will provide our customers with some valuable
information on how to better design spacecraft to operate safely and more efficiently," said Napoli. "Another benefit to these tests is the fast, real-time access to data – NASA will know in a short time frame how radiation is affecting these structures and at what level."
Professor Gretchen Benedix is an astrogeologist and cosmic mineralogist who studies meteorites and figures the forming stages of the solar system.