How an Autonomous Self-Assembling Space Robot Could Transform NASA’s Future Missions
The Archinaut One could support NASA’s efforts to reach the moon and Mars—and one day, potentially defend itself in outer space.
NASA recently awarded a $73.7 million contract to develop and launch an autonomous space robot that can manufacture and assemble itself and other materials in orbit—a feat that could transform the future of space exploration.
The agency is working with Made in Space on a cutting-edge spacecraft called Archinaut One, with the goal of launching by 2022. The project also demonstrates the necessity of public-private partnerships in preparing for future missions to the moon and Mars.
“This is really going to enable remote in-space construction of items, including things like communication antenna, large scale space telescopes and other complex structures,” Dayna Ise, a program executive for NASA’s Technology Demonstration Missions told Nextgov. “This is very exciting for them and for us.”
Ise has worked at NASA for nearly two decades, first building computer models for the space shuttle’s main engine, to now managing an entire portfolio of the agency’s flight programs. But she said she’s not presently aware of any previous mission or entity that would allow for manufacturing to happen autonomously in space. This collaboration marks the second phase of NASA’s Tipping Point contract. Announced in 2015 through the "Utilizing Public-Private Partnerships to Advance Tipping Point Technologies” solicitation, it encompasses the agency’s far-reaching goal of helping private industry partners deliver technologies that will help NASA meet its future mission needs, while also stimulating the commercial space industry with new applications.
While Phase One of the program was a ground demo that aimed to eliminate risk and ensure everything operates properly, through Phase Two NASA and Made in Space will develop and launch Archinaut One to prove it can function on its own in space. Once it’s there, the spacecraft will 3D-print two 10-meter beams and then unfurl two solar arrays that could generate as much as five times more power than traditional solar panels on spacecrafts that are close in size.
While it may seem difficult to grasp exactly what Archinaut One and its underlying technology is, its power is at the intersection of autonomy and manufacturing.
“There’s this funny line from one of the higher-ups at SpaceX who said ‘yeah, our rockets are really just robots with interesting hobbies,’—and that’s really true here, right?” Made in Space CEO Andrew Rush recently told Nextgov. “Like Archinaut has this extended-structure 3D printer on it, it’s got a robotic arm on it, and just like a robot, we will give it instructions and it will execute those instructions.”
Rush and his team, who already have Made in Space 3D printers deployed on the International Space Station, will be able to instruct Archinaut One to do a variety of manufacturing and assembly operations. Archinaut One will be able to build its own extended solar panels and other tech like antennas, radiators and deflectors in orbit. He said the company’s ultimate goal is to enable people to sustainably live and work in space but to do that, they need manufacturing technologies that can operate away from Earth, as well as enable them to create innovative new tools and fixes for both satellites and possibly for future human habitats.
Both Ise and Rush noted that perhaps the most powerfully transformative feature of such technology is its potential to eliminate the volume and environment constraints posed by launch vehicles. In the past, spacecraft have been built and designed to survive the high-intensity journey to space by being folded up like a piece of origami at the top of the rocket inside the aerodynamic fairing. The spacecraft would expand upon landing but is not built or optimized for its operational environment.
“So Archinanaut One is going to change that,” Rush said. “It’s freeing the satellite from the tyranny of launch. Every spacecraft can potentially benefit from this technology and this shift in thinking and design.”
Further, the ability to manufacture in space will also potentially shift the paradigm around what to do if something, particularly a necessity, breaks in space. Rush brought up a memorable example from the Apollo 13 mission, when astronauts had to “cobble together a whole bunch of stuff” to make a square peg and plug it into a round hole, to save themselves from potentially being harmed by exhaust.
“With this technology, that's a much less scary moment, because we can design one up, send the file to space in just a couple of hours and have it be custom and confident that that's going to solve the problem and protect the astronauts,” Rush said. “That's a huge shift.”
Ise also noted that Archinaut One will help astronauts avoid inherent risks that come with conducting spacewalks and operating in outer space. “It frees up the astronauts so they are able to do other things, so they are able to do fundamental science and things like that,” she said.
The two also said Archinaut could give America a leg up against adversaries, in more ways than one.
“It’s now an openly acknowledged thing that the space domain is a warfighting domain—it is a contested environment,” Rush said. He explained that because the technology can reconstitute, refigure and repair itself, it may be able to actually protect itself from dangerous space confrontations.
“Perhaps one day [it could] be able to provide some even basic defense of itself in the face of it being attacked,” he said.
And as NASA prepares for its reasonably massive future undertakings, there’s a fresh appreciation for the impact public-private partnerships, both new and old. Ise noted that she is particularly excited about the fact that Made in Space, founded in 2010, is a relatively young company establishing itself within space tech.
“We love our established space companies and we love forming partnerships with them, but we also like to involve these sort of recent new entrants into the space industry and we are happy that there’s been so much growth for new companies,” she said. “[These partnerships] allows us to develop and prove these critical space technologies and its really been a successful model for us.”
Rush also noted that NASA has a few ambitious and challenging missions ahead, which could likely be cost-prohibitive or simply impossible with the traditional “fold-up” technology that’s always been deployed.
“This is incredibly enabling,” he said. “I think that these sorts of public/private partnerships are really amazing tools for everybody to win.”
NASA’s TDM team and Made in Space will work with a few partners, including Northrop Grumman, to develop, design and operate Archinaut One until it is all set to launch on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from New Zealand, in 2022. And instead of perceiving the effort through the lens of a competitive “space race,” Ise said she looks to it all as just another opportunity to collaborate with commercial industry and international partners.
“These missions are going to be so big and so challenging, we need everyone involved. It’s sort of all hands on deck,” she said. “And I think you will be very impressed by what it will be able to accomplish in the end.”