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3D Printers Reaches Final Frontier, Made in Space Manufacturing Satellites that build themselves

In a nondescript construction near Moffett Field, still undistracted by any VC funding, an 80-person called Made in Space is constructing instruments for the next-gen satellites and space exploration, including most remarkably, the first self-building satellite, due for launch in three years.

Manufacturingin space rather than on the ground, courtesy of 3D printers and automated assembly, comes with many benefits. It saves volume by sending solid feedstock for 3D printers instead of spacious built objects. More importantly, when there is no need to make to survive the traumatic forces of launch, it can be used for more fragile designs and hence less mass.

It’s not that the entire satellite will probably be built in orbit from bricks of polymer and wire. However, Archinaut One, for which NASA has granted Made in Space $73.7 million, construct two ten-meter-long wings of solar arrays instead of unfolding the customary smaller panels, generating “up to five times extra power than regular PV panels on spacecraft of similar size.”

The possible commercial applications are quite a few. Most obviously, Internet-through-satellite solutions require bandwidth, and energy equals bandwidth. Bridenstine, who praises how this work was done by a small company and not by NASA, clearly prefers NASA as a buyer of the private space sector, or “one of many purchasers,” rather than owning or building new technologies itself. Archinaut One is, in turn, something of a prototype for eventual robotic development of the controversial Lunar Gateway.

Most impressive of all is their approach to changing lunar and another regolith into 3D-printing feedstock and utilizing it to construct extremely robust, and hermetic, structures. It seems that 70% moondust can be mixed with 30% polymer nodules into a combination that can be heated into 3D feedstock for an exceptional one-thirtieth the energy cost of sintering.

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