Soon, building entire satellites in orbit may be possible. Here’s how one company is working to make that future a reality with Archinaut.
Satellites lead a double life.
Our sats are designed to survive in two very different environments: the microgravity of orbit and the intense forces of a rocket launch. But the extensive support structures they need to endure the brutal trip off-planet are useless once the launch is over. And what’s more, having to build satellites this way limits their effectiveness in orbit because it restricts the size of components like transmitters and solar arrays, as well as the choice of materials that can be used in construction.
“Every single satellite that we’ve ever built and launched to space has to ride up on a rocket,” says Andrew Rush, CEO of Made In Space. “That rocket subjects the payload to a high-g, high-shock, high-vibration environment which really limits the design of the satellite.”
Rush wants to change that. Instead of building satellites here on Earth and launching them into space, he envisions a future in which we simply launch small components and raw materials, remotely controlled spacecraft actually assemble the orbiter in orbit. It’s more than just a vision—Rush’s company has a NASA contract to make it happen.
Made In Space
The International Space Station’s 3-D printer built by Made In Space.
Made In Space is no stranger to space manufacturing. In 2014, the company launched the first 3D printer to the International Space Station and designed the station’s Additive Manufacturing Facility that can produce a variety of tools and equipment. Made In Space was behind the first tool ever printed on board the ISS, a socket wrench.
Thanks to a $20 million NASA contract awarded in 2015, the company is going to expand its space 3D-printing operations through its Archinaut program. Archinaut is a mini-fridge-sized robot that will be mounted to the ISS when it launches in 2018. With additive manufacturing capabilities in the bot’s body and a robotic arm to assemble components externally, Archinaut could be the first step toward a future of large-scale manufacturing in space. It will operate in the vacuum of space, and it will print structures bigger than itself.
Building satellites in orbit
From there, it’s easy to see Made In Space’s vision of the future: A satellite similar to Archinaut that orbits off by itself and builds fragile components that wouldn’t survive the violence of a rocket launch. A robotic spacecraft with multiple arms could use thrusters to fly around to different parts of the object it is constructing though additive manufacturing and assembly. If indeed this kind of machine opens up new types of structures we can place in orbit, we could significantly increase the capabilities (and lower the costs) of satellites.
For example: Satellites use reflectors to transmit data. The rigors of getting to space mean that large dishes and reflectors can be launched only on large satellites. “Smaller satellites have the same processing capability of those large satellites but they have a bottleneck when it comes to transmitting data back to the Earth,” Rush says. With a system like Archinaut in place, smaller satellites could have larger, more efficient reflectors.
The future of Archinaut
There’s also the hope that an Archinaut system would be able to repair existing spacecraft in orbit so astronauts won’t need to perform risky spacewalks to replace faulty components. An archinaut satellite could rendezvous with the ISS to perform simple maintenance tasks, for example, or repair vital satellites in orbit so they don’t require expensive replacements.
Ultimately, Made In Space hopes Archinaut systems will be able to build entire satellites large enough to perform a variety of tasks. Equipped with raw materials for 3D printing and some completed components like computer boards, sensors, and batteries, Archinaut may be able to construct a working satellite entirely on its own, in space. Archinaut or a future system could even potentially reuse components from retired satellites, limiting the amount of space junk in orbit.
In the not-too-distant future, Archinaut could be used to build giant satellites with reflector dishes that stretch dozens or hundreds of feet—or even build telescopes that dwarf Hubble and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, another example of a spacecraft that is limited by the requirements of launch. Without the rocket to constrain the size, satellites could be built as large as we want or need them to be.
If Archinaut is as successful as Made In Space hopes, the future may be filled not with swarms of small cubesats and microsatellites as many predict, but rather with big, powerful, multipurpose satellites built entirely in space. And just maybe, once we establish a network of worker bots in space to build and repair satellites, we can start talking about the ultimate orbiting construction project: a spaceship large enough to take many people into the final frontier. Archinaut may only be the beginning.
This article was originally written for and published by Popular Mechanics USA.