It will be at least 2022 by the time NASA deploys this new technology, but if its first mission is successful it could be a ‘game-changer’.
On Friday (12 July), NASA announced it had made the first step towards implementing a major strategy it has been considering for a number of years.
Instead of spending a great deal of time and resources bringing a variety of items to space, the US agency plans to construct these items in space using 3D-printing technology. This technology will allow NASA to deliver items to space that had previously been considered far too large to transport.
The 3D printers will also be able to take over some of the tasks currently performed by astronauts, removing some of the safety risks that exist and allowing astronauts to prioritise other tasks.
To achieve this goal, NASA has awarded a $73.7m contract to Californian company Made In Space. This partnership aims to demonstrate the ability of a small spacecraft, called Archinaut One, to manufacture and assemble spacecraft components in low-Earth orbit. NASA believe this could be instrumental in expanding human space travel to Mars.
According to NASA, this contract is the start of the second phase of a partnership established through the space agency’s Tipping Point solicitation. “The public-private partnership combines NASA resources with an industry contribution of at least 25pc of the programme costs, shepherding the development of critical space technologies while also saving the agency, and American taxpayers, money.”
At some stage in 2022 or later, NASA will launch Archinaut One from New Zealand. When it reaches low-Earth orbit, the spacecraft will perform its first test, which involves printing two beams that extend 10 metres out from each side of the spacecraft.
In its blog, NASA explained: “As manufacturing progresses, each beam will unfurl two solar arrays that generate as much as five times more power than traditional solar panels on spacecraft of a similar size.” You can see a demonstration of this process here.
Associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, Jim Reuter, called it “an unquestionable game-changer”.
NASA concluded that if Archinaut One is successful in its first mission, it could lead to huge advancements down the road.