Tuesday, August 18, 2015

New Manufacturing Technologies to Build Satellites in Space

          By Brian Orlotti

NanoRacks LLC and Made In Space Inc have announced a new joint venture that will enable on-demand manufacturing of cube-sats on board the International Space Station (ISS) for deployment in low-Earth orbit.

The NanoRacks cube-sat deployer (NRCSD), installed on board the ISS in 2014, is one of two cube-sat launchers on board the ISS (the Japanese experiment module small satellite orbital deployer (J-SSOD) is the second). Photo c/o NASA.

The new initiative represents a paradigm shift in satellite manufacturing and also highlights the NewSpace industry's knack for reaching out to non-traditional groups and getting them involved in space---in contrast to traditional space advocacy groups.

As outlined in the August 11th, 2015 Made in Space press release, "Made in Space and NanoRacks take first steps towards on-orbit satellite manufacturing assembly and deployment," the venture, called "stash & deploy" entails storing an inventory of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) and custom satellite components as well as a microgravity 3D printer on board the ISS which, working together, will enable rapid assembly and deployment of cube-sats in space. The program leverages NanoRacks' existing ISS facilities and expertise in cube-sat development as well as Made In Space's micro-gravity 3D printing technology.

In-orbit building and deployment of satellites would have significant advantages over launching them from Earth. Satellites could be built and deployed in a fraction of the time needed by traditional methods. In addition, with satellites no longer being subjected to the stresses of being launched via rocket, they could be built with less expensive materials and have their structures optimized for a micro-gravity environment.

Made In Space has also made clear that its ultimate goal is scaling up their microgravity 3D printer to enable orbital printing of larger structures, such as spacecraft and space stations. NanoRacks and Made In Space say the "stash & deploy" service will be available in Q1 of 2016.

Made in Space info-graphic outlining the first 3D printing of an object on board the ISS in November 2014. As outlined in the November 25th, 2014 3D Printing article, "First Ever Functioning 3D Printed Object Has Been Fabricated in Space by NASA & Made In Space," several private companies are now working on methods, applications, and technologies to enable 3D printing outside of the earth’s atmosphere. Graphic c/o Made in Space.

This is a fundamental shift for satellite production,” according to Made in Space president Andrew Rush. “In the near future, we envision that satellites will be manufactured quickly and to the customer’s exact needs, without being overbuilt to survive launch or have to wait for the next launch.”

Parallels can be drawn between orbital assembly of satellites and the personal computer revolution of the late 1970's and early 1980's. Like computers, satellites have evolved from large, proprietary and expensive systems available only to governments and corporations into low-cost, standardized and commoditized hardware. With the advent of the personal computer, computing went from being a black art practiced by an elite, to a field that attracted new players who innovated and advocated.

Space advocacy groups are often accused of eternally 'preaching to the choir'---of refusing to court members of society outside of their traditional clique (i.e. scientists and engineers). This parochialism has in turn prevented the space advocacy movement from gaining influence over government decision-making or even society at large.

By democratizing satellites, the "stash & deploy" service may well draw interest from hitherto ignored players who will spur a new wave of space innovation and inspiration.

3D printing also has other uses. This electric Rutherford engine is the first oxygen/hydrocarbon engine to use 3D printing for all of its primary components including the engine chamber, pumps, main propellant valves and injector. As outlined in the April 14th, 2015 3D Print.com article, "Built Almost Entirely of 3D Printed Parts, the World’s First Battery-Powered Rocket is Unveiled," the Rutherford engine, financed by several high-tech investors including Lockheed Martin, is expected to begin launching satellites in 2016. Graphic c/o Rocket Lab.

As the August 17th, 2015 post "Space Advocacy By Space Advocates Is A Failure," by NASAWatch editor Keith Cowing skillfully put it:
While the human spaceflight subset of the space advocacy community continues to leap mindlessly at every shiny new space thing - with little success, the robotic subset of the space faithful are quietly flying an increasing number of small satellites - in outer space. 
In so doing they are slowly building a ever-broadening cadre of people - a group that often includes people from outside the band of usual suspects you'd expect to be doing space stuff. These are the sorts of people that space advocates routinely ignore. As a result of these smallsat projects an increasing diverse number of people can now say "yes, I flew something in space". 
In many ways space advocates block more access to space than they facilitate due to the stereotypes that they perpetuate and the population sectors they ignore. If space advocates want to spark a space revolution then they need to forget about all the space evangelism crap and just put actual space access into the hands of everyday citizens. 
Once people get interested - if they get interested, that is - they'll know what to do when they want more of it. 
By the way: if NASA expects to be able to generate and then maintain the multi-decade political and financial juggernaut needed for their #JourneyToMars they ought to be paying very close attention to the limitations of space advocates and the vast untapped potential resident within everyone else.
Brian Orlotti.
If this harnessing of untapped potential does come to pass, then the merging of satellites and 3D printing will have (in more ways than one) been a match made in heaven. 

Brian Orlotti is a network operations centre analyst at Shomi, a Canadian provider of on-demand internet streaming media and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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