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Sustainable space manufacturing and design will help get us to the Moon, Mars, and beyond

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in-space assembly

In-space manufacturing and assembly can be enabled by the use of technologies to repair and recycle materials. (credit: Made In Space)

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Sustainability isn’t merely an initiative that supports life on Earth. It also holds the power to propel the future of the space industry forward. The NewSpace industry and government agencies like NASA are focused on developing the commercial space industry, where technologies and methodologies are lower cost and more accessible in a rapidly growing market.

Innovations within in-space manufacturing and design provide the best hope for solutions to help advance space exploration to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

While new spacecraft and launch technologies offer the sustainability of higher payload capacities, reusability, and better fuel efficiencies, a major underlying problem lies in the massive energies and resources required to move a large amount of mass into space. Another notable concern is sustaining (building, repairing and updating) equipment and vital technologies on years-long missions into deep space.

Long-duration space missions require a paradigm shift in the design and manufacturing of space tools and architecture, and a heightened focus on sustainability is essential if they are to succeed.

But how can we make deep space exploration a plausible reality? Innovations within in-space manufacturing and design provide the best hope for solutions to help advance space exploration to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

3D-printing in zero gravity

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) depend on cargo resupply missions to send parts and tools from Earth, often waiting several months for critical supplies and maintenance. As humans venture further into the solar system, however, resupply missions will become increasingly complex and expensive. Astronauts will need to make their own tools, spare parts, and other materials on demand, both for routine necessities and unforeseen events.

But now, the wait may greatly improve with the use of additive manufacturing, a way to 3D-print components from digital models. Often viewed as one of the most sustainable technologies, 3D-printing greatly reduces the time and cost it takes to make parts in orbit—and it has already shown its success and versatility in space.

In 2014, NASA and NewSpace manufacturing partners tested out its first 3D-manufactured print of an extruder plate in space and proved that microgravity has no significant impact on the engineering process and is safe in crewed spaceship environments. Since then, NASA’s additive manufacturing efforts on the ISS have focused mainly on the printing of polymers or plastics. NASA is currently working with commercial space companies on in-space metal printing capabilities, with ceramics as a future goal.

Printing tools and other devices in space not only reduces the time, it also increases the reliability of missions while limiting costs and freeing up room on spacecraft.

Niki Werkheiser, the 3D print project manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, once said, “For the space station even, it will decrease risk, decrease costs. But for longer-term missions, for space exploration, this is absolutely a critical technology.”

For 3D manufacturing to succeed for long-term spaceflight, recycling technologies are crucial.

In the future, it may also have more critical applications. It has the potential to create space habitats and distant outposts on other planets. By sending robots to the surface of a planet in advance, they may be able to 3D-print landing pads and beams in preparation. Ultimately, 3D-manufacturing technology will be a gamechanger for the way we sustain our presence in space.

In-space recycling and reuse technologies

For 3D manufacturing to succeed for long-term spaceflight, recycling technologies are crucial. On-demand manufacturing requires the recycling of materials for the maintenance of critical systems, habitats and mission logistics.

Using recycled material for 3D-printing feedstock could save future long-duration exploration missions from the cost and burden of having to carry large supplies of such material. Since recycling allows the use of materials that otherwise represent a nuisance or a trash problem issue on these missions, it’s possible to recycle materials into usable objects.

The Braskem Recycler is one such facility on the ISS that demonstrates the power of in-space recycling through semi-autonomous technologies. It creates a closed-loop manufacturing system in space, converting plastic waste into feedstock that is repurposed for 3D-printed tools. Further, the facility serves for the reusability of materials to help solve problems as they arise now or on future crewed space exploration missions.

ERASMUS is another next-generation innovation that integrates 3D printing, plastics recycling, and dry heat sterilization capabilities. The system then accepts previously-used plastic waste and parts, sterilizes these materials, and recycles them into food-grade and medical-grade 3D printer filament. As a result, these objects include items that are food and medical safe.

Together, these technologies give deep space explorers the advantage of sustained life and resupply when such options aren’t available so far from Earth.

Robot manufacturing and self-reparability

What happens when crucial computers or systems break halfway on a mission to Mars? Luckily, NewSpace manufacturers have the foresight to anticipate tech breakdowns.

In-space robotic manufacturing is one of the disruptive technologies that will revolutionize our path into space, helping to create large mission-critical structures on-orbit and retains the ability to repair and reconfigure themselves over time.

While space manufacturing is still nascent, the sustainability it promises highlights a viable path toward our long-term success in space.

The Archinaut platform, for instance, is a technology suite combining additive manufacturing with robotic assembly for remote in-space construction of large complex structures. Traditionally, large, permanent structures are either too expensive (worth billions of dollars) or impractical to build and launch and require 10 to 12 years to build and deploy.

Instead of launching a large, complex structure, creating its components in space saves money, time, and deployment risk by providing a secure platform to which other high-functioning modular mission features can attached.

Archinaut also integrates new technologies into existing structures, accelerating the pace at which emerging space technologies can be fixed and operated. Hardware is installed and upgraded while software is refreshed, maintaining high-level capabilities without reconstructing or deploying a new system. We could place space structures like satellites in strategic locations and upgrade them as new technologies become available. This space platform is designed for rapid renewal and reconfigurability, and enables space operators to adapt quickly to changes in operational conditions and emerging environmental threats. When treading the unknown, that’s vital to a mission’s survival.

A sustainable framework for surviving space

While space manufacturing is still nascent, the sustainability it promises highlights a viable path toward our long-term success in space. On-orbit manufacturing and assembly will eventually lead to tools for long-term space missions, but also impact areas such as energy utilization and the 3D-printing of biological materials and food. While it’s a significant challenge to develop these innovations, the in-space manufacturing industry is expected to reach $7.5 billion by 2030. Sustainable manufacturing and design practices will further enable our presence in space, and will also preserve and empower our capability to go further than humanity has gone before.


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