August 17, 2019

A Look into Archinaut: The Spacecraft-Assembly Technology Set for a Test Flight in 2022

Understanding Archinaut: The Construction Robot for Space

Made in SpaceAs part of NASA’s Tipping Point Program, California-based startup Made in Space will join hands with Northrop Grumman and Oceaneering to initiate the Archinaut development program. The first-ever platform that is designed to build large structures for space and in space, Archinaut enables the construction, assembly, and integration of systems optimized for space exploration into a spacecraft.

An official announcement was made by NASA on Friday, July 12 that the demonstration craft ‘Archinaut One’ will be launched to low Earth orbit in 2022. The craft launched into space will be aboard a Rocket Lab Electron booster. Once it is in space, Archinaut One will 3D-print two beams that are 10 meters or 32-foot long. The beams will extend from all sides of the spacecraft.

Over time, as progress is made with the technology, the beams printed by Archinaut One will be able to dispose of solar arrays that can generate power fives time more than traditional panels that crafts of similar size sport. If Archinaut One has a successful run in space, then it could pave the way for bigger things down the road.

The Archinaut Development Program

The Archinaut Development Program will be implemented in phase. The first phase of the program will look to build the case for spacecraft manufacturing and assembly technologies that are developed for the commercial uses, defense missions, and exploration applications of NASA.

In future phases, we could witness Archinaut’s integration into government and commercial missions and more complicated demonstrations of the technology on orbit. Instead of requiring designs to survive the vibrations and forces experienced during launch, this will enable structures and designs optimized for space.

About the Archinaut System

A system incorporated into a satellite, Archinaut features a few prefabricated components, a manufacturing unit, feedstock, assembly robotics, and a space-manufacturing unit. Archinaut is wrapped extremely tightly while it is launched. This results in significant mass and volume savings over avant-garde deployables.

Once it is in space, Archinaut can start fulfilling its duties which is to manufacture systems for the satellite that are optimized for space. These satellite systems include radiators, booms, trusses, antennae, reflectors, and other similar components. The assembly robotics and the manufacturing unit are combined to accomplish construction.

According to the associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate Jim Reuter, the Archinaut technology will potentially change the basic capabilities for future exploration of the space. He made this statement in an official press release by NASA. He further commented that the technology will allow the United States to maintain its leadership in space exploration.

The Archinaut technology has been in the development phase at Made in Space for several years now under a ‘tipping point technologies’ contract with NASA. The announcement made by NASA in July 12 kick starts the second phase of this contract.

Featuring robotic manipulator arms and a 3D printer, the Archinaut tech will ultimately enable spacecrafts to perform several valuable tasks in space. This could range from repairing and improving satellites to constructing massive structures like telescopes for use in space. This is based on a statement made by a representative of Made in Space.

A technology that has already had several successful runs on Earth, Archinaut is almost ready for its first space mission. An example of a successful test run of Archinaut was the test in which several structures were produced by its 3D printer in a vacuum chamber that had controlled radiative thermal environment and imposed the space’s vacuum and temperatures.

While microgravity was not induced by that chamber, other Made in Space technology that has proven itself in similar conditions provides the California startup and NASA with the confidence to move forward with Archinaut.

For example, two 3D printers have been built and launched to the International Space Station (ISS) by Made in Space while another machine of the startup which is onboard the space station has manufactured ZBLAN, an extremely useful fiber-optic cable.

The Innovation Enabled by Archinaut

High-resolution manufacturing, the manufacturing enabled by Archinaut involves the additive manufacturing of structures that are far bigger than the spacecraft-assembly technology or the construction robot itself.

In terms of in-space manufacturing, this is a revolutionary innovation simply because it is currently not possible to launch manufacturing units the size of a house into space to produce reflectors that are as big as a car. The only option available to us is launching manufacturing units the size of a washing machine to produce objects as big as a football field. Archinaut makes this possible.

When this ability of Archinaut is integrated with assembly robotics, it becomes possible to manufacture both large and complicated functional structures. Many functional components including solar panels, sensors, wiring harnesses, and antennae can be integrated by the assembly system into the on-orbit spacecraft that is being manufactured. This enables the construction of structures optimized for space as well as the construction of satellites that are almost entirely optimized for space.

Part of a broader vision, the program that looks to develop the Archinaut technology and launching it into space is aimed at enabling a sustainable environment for astronauts and others who take up residence in space and alien planets. To stay updated with new developments in Archinaut program, keep following me.  Very cool stuff coming!

by Bobby J Davidson

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