The US military has awarded contracts under a new program to address manufacturing needs in space, as part of a larger effort to lower the costs of space flight.
Space manufacturing could allow humanity to build large structures efficiently, using materials launched from Earth or collected on another world, such as the Moon or Mars. Such work could possibly begin on the moon in the not-too-distant future, especially with the advent of private landing missions as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.
Manufacturing in space is still in its infancy, and the US military wants to help it. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently began working with eight teams to show proofs of concept “to enable the production of future space structures in orbit without the volume constraints imposed by launch,” officials stated. DARPA a few weeks ago.
Making things in space: Off-Earth manufacturing is just beginning
The NOM4D program, short for “Novel Orbital Moon Manufacturing, Materials and Mass Efficient Design,” will test materials science, manufacturing and design technologies that could one day be used outside of Earth, DARPA officials said. (However, the initial phases funded now will not be in the space.)
While NOM4D is not immediately considering the technology for use on or around the moon, DARPA officials said, the Earth-orbiting structures the program seeks to enable and test could eventually allow the US military to monitor cislunar (Earth-moon) space. Cislunar space is considered a priority area for the US military, given the growing commercial and government activities in this area.
The problem with launching things into space, as DARPA pointed out, is that such objects are limited by the dimensions and lift capacity of the rocket, not to mention vibrations. This is why antennas, for example, are often deployed in space; they are unwieldy objects to cast otherwise.
“All current space systems are designed, built and tested on Earth before being launched into a stable orbit and deployed to their final operational configuration,” said Bill Carter, NOM4D program manager in DARPA’s office of defense sciences, in the same statement. “These constraints are particularly acute for large structures like solar panels, antennas, and optical systems, where size is critical to performance.”
Creating more complex structures in space will likely require building them in place, much like the International Space Station was put together piece by piece. But to a greater extent than the construction of the ISS, in which astronauts performed dozens of spacewalks with the help of the Canadarm2 robotic arm, future manufacturing facilities in space are likely to use robotic technologies almost exclusively. Additionally, future facilities will be tasked with using raw materials, rather than pre-assembled components like those that make up the ISS.
DARPA emphasized that the NOM4D program does not intend to launch raw materials into space, collect lunar samples, or build structures just yet. The program will allow for potential “orbital experimentation” in “potential follow-up efforts” in the next 10 to 20 years, the agency said. For now, however, there are three initial phases planned.
“During Phase 1, program implementers are tasked with meeting stringent structural efficiency goals that support a megawatt-class solar array,” DARPA stated. “In Phase 2, the teams are tasked with increasing mass efficiency and demonstrating precision manufacturing for the RF reflectors. In the final phase, the artists are tasked with demonstrating the precision of the infrared reflectors.”
The full list of materials in space and manufacturing recipients and their tasks, in DARPA’s words, includes:
- HRL Laboratories, LLC, Malibu, California, develops new dieless manufacturing processes for fabricating orbital mechanical elements and orbital bonded structures.
- University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, developing predictive materials and correlative process models to enable in-orbit use of laser training.
- University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, Illinois, developing a high-precision space-based compounding process using self-energized face-on polymerization.
- Physical Sciences, Inc., Andover, Massachusetts, which develops the ongoing fabrication of regolith-derived glass-ceramic mechanical structures for use in large-scale orbital applications.
- Teledyne Scientific Company, LLC, Thousand Oaks, California, is building a comprehensive database of additive-modified regolith material properties for use in controlled thermal expansion precision orbital structures.
The list of mass efficient designs for space fabrication vessels and their tasks, in DARPA’s words, is:
- University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, exploring new design approaches for strong, stable, high-precision, mass-efficient space structures based on metamaterial and metadamping concepts.
- Opterus Research and Development, Inc., Loveland, Colorado, develops designs for extremely mass-efficient, large-scale structures optimized for resiliency and mobility.
- California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, designing novel hybrid stress-flexural architectures and structural components with highly anisotropic mechanical response.