Curiosity has always pushed the human race to explore infinite possibilities. Ranging from the recent findings of the human brain to the astounding discoveries that are being made in outer space, we keep innovating to widen our knowledge base and answer all the questions that tickle us every day. Each day we are one step closer to uncovering the mysteries of the universe. Recently, one such step was taken by the organization Made In Space (MIS) by building a spacecraft: Archinaut One. Archinaut One is a spacecraft, the size of a refrigerator, which will be launched into space in 2022. The spacecraft will be capable of manufacturing and assembling components of existing satellites and building new satellites. Archinaut One will be the most advanced man-made structure in space.
Archinaut One is a great innovation that combines 3D printing and robotics to build objects in space. It works in four steps. First, launching the raw material in rockets to the lower orbit of the earth. Second, uploading the designs that need to be created. Third, manufacturing the parts from the raw material and the designs. Fourth, assembling the structure with the help of the robotic arms.
NASA recently commented about how the Archinaut One is going to generate the power for manufacturing, “The small spacecraft will 3D- print two beams that extend nearly 33 feet from each side of the spacecraft. As it continues to manufacture the hardware, these beams will unfurl solar arrays that can generate up to five times more power than traditional solar panels on similar-sized spacecraft.” In 2017, MIS were successfully able to print the two beams in a thermal vacuum which mimics the temperature and pressure conditions of space at NASA’s Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley, California. In 2018, a second thermal vacuum test was successfully carried out at Northrop Grumman’s Space Park facility in Redondo Beach, California that demonstrated that a robotic arm can successfully be used to assemble the parts in similar conditions.
3D printing has been used to build objects for rockets and spacecraft for a long time. In 2014, Made In Space had sent Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) into the International Space Station (ISS). AMF is the first 3D printer to print in microgravity and it has since been used to make more than 200 tools, components, and devices. AMF has helped researchers understand the problems that can be faced while printing in microgravity. Archinaut One, however, will not only be printing outside ISS but also in vacuum.
Sending large and expensive structures into space is very inconvenient. Especially with new researches showing up and technologies evolving, structures with finer designs need to be sent to space. With Archinaut One, the costs of sending decreases to a great extent. Even small rockets can carry all the raw material needed by the spacecraft and thus volume will no more be a limitation in rockets. This allows us to build structures as big as we want. Big telescopes that will help us see even further in space, reflectors, satellites, etc., can be also be built. Even, delicate structures that are not ideal for sending into space as they cannot survive the forces of launch can be built with the help of Archinaut One.
A well-remembered flaw that occurred in the Apollo 13 mission, when astronauts had to repair the spaceship in order to save themselves from the harms that could have been incurred by an exhaust, is a reminder of the fact that anything can go wrong in outer space. The astronauts are sent to space to carry out research work and conduct experiments, and emergencies like these can be life-threatening if they are not able to solve the problem on time. Archinaut One can help save the time of astronauts. Once the designs are uploaded from the earth, the required component will be built and placed in the correct position so as to avoid any damages to property or life. It will also save the astronauts the spacewalks which today are a must in order to ensure the proper functioning of the machinery. Astronauts will then be able to concentrate on the more important scientific aspects which are their primary purpose in space without being concerned about any Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA).
Putting a satellite in space is an expensive task. If the satellite needs to be taken down, it takes another fortune to carry out return missions and launch new ones. Building satellites in space itself can save millions if not billions of dollars.
After the success of Archinaut One, an even more advanced structure could be expected to be sent in space. Made In Space is expecting to manufacture another Archinaut with three robotic arms which will be able to latch itself to any structure on the orbit and repair it. Extracted components can be used in repairing other satellites and help reduce space debris. Currently, disposing of the unused components is as costly as sending them into space. Teams are also trying to look for materials found in space that could be used as the 3D-printing feedstock. This includes materials from the moon, Mars and even asteroids. With raw materials available in outer space, the earth does not need to send the raw material and thus we can expect to see colonies in space and the far to be true dream of living in space can become a reality. As the CEO of Made In Space rightly said, “The space environment is a very valuable and unique environment. We can make things that would just be impossible to create on Earth. This will eventually enable us to really live off the land, not only in microgravity but on other moons and planets.”