Manufacturing Heads to Space

The technology could build large structures in orbit.

Last summer, Jeff Bezos spent 11 minutes in space, and determined that it would be best for the planet to move all polluting industries to space.

We've heard of many theories, from 3D printing native materials to using a combination of moon dust, lunar ice and astronaut urine to build bases

Last week, DARPA kicked off a new program for space-based manufacturing, but it's not focused on manufacturing on Mars or the moon. It will, however, use lunar materials to manufacture products on-orbit or in space.

The program is called the "Novel Orbital Moon Manufacturing, Materials, and Mass Efficient Design" (NOM4D) program, and DARPA has chosen eight teams to develop new ways to design and manufacture large structures in space. It comes down to a space problem — no pun intended — because rockets simply don't have enough room to launch large Earth-made systems. 

The teams are tasked with developing proofs of concept that could enable production of future space structures. The idea is to send some raw materials from Earth and combine them with lunar materials collected from the moon for on-orbit manufacturing. 

The NOM4D program specifies that it has nothing to do with building structures on the moon's surface. Instead, all manufacturing would be done in orbital construction facilities and the products would be used in orbital applications. 

According to Bill Carter, NOM4D program manager, size is critical to the performance of solar arrays, antennas and optical systems. If NOM4D is a success, future structures would no longer be held to launch constraints because they will be built off-Earth. 

Now, the teams won't be launching any raw materials into space or collecting lunar samples, but that could happen later. 

DARPA broke the eight teams into two groups: in-space materials and manufacturing, and mass-efficient designs for in-space manufacturing. 

In-space materials and manufacturing:

  • HRL Laboratories: Die-less fabrication processes to make orbital mechanical elements and bonded structures on-orbit.
  • University of Florida: Predictive material and correlative process models to enable on-orbit use of laser forming.
  • University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: High precision in-space composite forming process using self-energized frontal polymerization.
  • Physical Sciences: Continuous fabrication of regolith-derived, glass-ceramic mechanical structures for large-scale orbital applications.
  • Teledyne Scientific: Comprehensive materials properties database of additive-modified regolith for use in controlled thermal expansion precision orbital structures.

Mass-efficient designs for in-space manufacturing:

  • University of Michigan: New design approaches to mass-efficient, high-precision, stable and resilient space structures based on metamaterial and metadamping concepts.
  • Opterus Research and Development: Designs for extreme mass efficient large-scale structures optimized for resiliency and mobility.
  • California Institute of Technology: Novel tension and bending hybrid architectures and structural components with highly anisotropic mechanical response.

Carter predicts that in 10 to 20 years, we could see NOM4D-developed technologies in action, including robots assembling large structures from NOM4D-manufactured components.

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