Feb 23, 2016 | By Tess

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, has been at the fore of bringing 3D printing to the final frontier: space. Just two years ago, NASA successfully launched a 3D printer to the International Space Station (ISS) in collaboration with Silicon Valley startup Made in Space, and now, as they gear up to send a second one into space, they have also announced a new project they are working on to build a 3D printer equipped with a robotic arm into space.

The project, called Archinaut (officially the Versatile In-Space Robotic Precision Manufacturing Assembly System), is being developed by Made in Space in collaboration with Northrop Grumman and Oceaneering Space Systems under a two year, $20 million NASA contract. The project could mean huge advances in space station maintenance as it would allow NASA and other space companies to launch raw 3D printing materials into space along with batteries and other sensors and have them not only 3D printed there, but have them assembled in-orbit by robotic arms.

“We are attempting to change the way we build space systems,” said Steve Jurcyk, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “Now, we build things on the ground and launch them using fairly expensive and complicated rockets. We are seeking to create an infrastructure to build systems in space rather than launching them.”

Jurcyk added that the Archinaut project, if successful, could even revolutionize spacecraft design, as it would eliminate the need for engineers to account for Earth’s gravitational force when creating certain structures. As parts and structures would be created and assembled in space, they would only have to take into account space’s unique environment, not the Earth’s as well.

Made in Space, responsible for the ISS’s 3D printer, are designing and building the Archinaut 3D printer, while Oceaneering Space Systems are creating the robotic arm that will be paired with it. Finally, aerospace and defence tech company Northrop Grumman will take care of the project’s systems engineering, electronics, software, and testing.

Archinaut will be developed until 2018, when its creators will have an on-orbit demonstration of the 3D printer-robotic arm’s ability to not only additively manufacture parts, but to assemble a complex structure from them. If the 2018 tests are successful, Made in Space, Oceaneering Space Systems and Northrop Grumman will continue their work by increasing the 3D printing components as well as adding more robotic arms. The final version of Archinaut envisioned by the three companies would include three robotic arms, used to latch on to orbiting structures and remove and re-appropriate old parts, effectively recycling or reusing space debris.

Howard Eller, the chief architect for advanced concepts at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, explains of the aforementioned application, “The problem with debris is that no one has an economic incentive to get rid of the stuff. If you can reuse the parts, there is an economic incentive because it costs $100 million to get all the stuff up there in the first place.”

The Archinaut project is part of NASA’s Tipping Point campaign, which has been set up to finance demonstrations of space technologies that will likely advance successfully and benefit both commercial and government applications.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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