NASA has awarded a $73.7 million contract to a company named Made In Space, to demonstrate their ability to assemble spacecraft and spacecraft components in low-Earth orbit.
Scheduled to launch in 2022, Made In Space’s Archinaut One will ride a Rocket Lab Electron rocket ship from New Zealand into a low-Earth orbit. Once it reaches the correct altitude, Archinaut One will begin 3D printing a pair of 32-foot beams out on either side of itself. Once completed, the beams will open 2 solar arrays to further power the ship.
“In-space, robotic manufacturing, and assembly are unquestionable game-changers and fundamental capabilities for future space exploration,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “By taking the lead in the development of this transformative technology, the United States will maintain its leadership in space exploration as we push forward with astronauts to the Moon and then on to Mars.”
The contract represents the second half of a partnership called Tipping Point. Tipping Point is a NASA program designed to match NASA resources with private-sector technology in an effort to expedite research and save tax dollars.
Archinaut began its life as a demonstration by Made In Space back in 2016. The experiment was held in NASA’s thermal vacuum chamber at the agency’s Ames Research Center that duplicates the conditions of space. In the demonstration, Archinaut was able to successfully demonstrate the ability to perform 3D printing and other tasks in the harsh environment of space.
The Tipping Point partnership includes 22 companies including Northrop Grumman of Falls Church, Virginia, Ames, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The ability to manufacture in space is an important step forward for America’s Moon to Mars exploration plan which will send astronauts back to the Moon by 2024 as a stepping stone for later missions to the red planet.