Denver / Fort Collins, Colorado
In-space manufacturing technology
As the private space industry gains momentum, the cost of launch remains a sticking point.
But if you could avoid it by manufacturing satellites, propellants, and other products in orbit, the price point isn't tied to escaping gravity.
CisLunar Industries is developing an alternative to launch: the patent-pending Micro Space Foundry (MSF) can turn orbital junk into raw materials.
"We see a new industrial economy emerging in cislunar space," says Calnan, who founded the company in Europe with cohorts from the International Space University, then relocated it to the U.S. in 2017. "It's going to be the foundation for humanity's ability to expand in a sustainable way beyond Earth, to actually create settlements on the Moon and Mars and other places."
"When we looked at the value chain for making space resources go from a mine to turning into a product, in the middle of that is metal processing," says Calnan. "If you look at the last Industrial Revolution -- where we the steel mills and the aluminum smelters fed the ability to make railroads and skyscrapers and everything else that makes up our modern economy -- it's going to be the same in space. We're building that metal processing capability for this industrial economy in space."
In lieu of deorbiting a satellite, for example, CisLunar can recycle it into its raw materials for reuse. "We can use space debris as a feedstock for this processing . . . to make these other materials," says Calnan. "There's a double benefit of that: We make space debris into something valuable."
Adds Pawelski: "We can make things on-orbit 10 times larger, because we don't have to launch them. It's a lot easier to build things when you have no gravity."
The MSF "is a small-scale system that's targeted to be less than 100 kilograms in mass, operate on less than a kilowatt of power, but modular so it can be scaled up to increase throughput at one location or to distribute that processing capability to different locations around cislunar space and different orbits around the Earth," he adds. Possible outputs include "wire for 3D printing, sheet metal, rods, tubes -- the basic intermediate products you would need to give to a manufacturer to make things out of."
Calnan says the company has drawn a line: "We're not interested in building trucks for space to move things around, we're not looking to build the propulsion systems, we're not looking to build the real estate in space. We're just focused on that one piece, which makes it easy to collaborate with all those other companies that are investing lots of money in all of that other stuff."
"Any kind of metal could be used as propellant for electric propulsion," says Pawelski. "It can also be used as a catalyst. Aluminum is a great catalyst for different types of propellant systems."
"Basically, what that means is you can take space debris and turn a portion of it into the fuel that's needed to go out and get that space debris, and then whatever's left over, you can use for materials," says Calnan. "It helps drive the whole logistics stream of this as well in a more sustainable way."
With a background in manufacturing at AMT in Loveland, Pawelski wrote a paper while studying space resources at Colorado School of Mines about mining lunar regolith to manufacture aluminum on the Moon. At CisLunar Industries, he led a Small BusiiSBIR Phase I that resulted in a live demonstration of a working prototype in less than six months in 2021.
Working from a converted garage in Fort Collins, Pawelski says he collaborates with an engineering team made up of "extreme builders and tinkerers." CisLunar Industries also leverages local machine shops and moldmakers, and sources circuit boards and other components from largely domestic suppliers. Pawelski says the company will likely employ the same model when it moves into commercial production.
Staked with $1.8 million in grant and pre-seed funding to date, CisLunar Industries is now in phase two of a SBIR grant from NASA, with a target of late 2022 for a simulated microgravity test of the technology and 2023 for the first demonstration of its propellant rods in orbit.
"We're aiming for a 2024 demonstration on the International Space Station on the Bishop Airlock with Axiom Space and Nanoracks partnering with us to make that happen," says Calnan. "We'll have a full-scale system that can take samples of metal, melt it down, and make at least rods out of that. We may be able to make wires as well. We'll do that for a week on the Space Station, bring those back down and analyze them. That leads directly to our first potential commercial use case in 2025."
Notes Pawelski: "We may end up recycling parts of the International Space Station."
Challenges: Calnan says market timing is the "big unknown" for CisLunar Industries. "When does the market emerge? We want to make sure we can derive revenues from the technology as early as possible."
"We've definitely seen cost barriers due to the supply chain," adds Pawelski. "Most of the funding we have right now . . . is from NASA, so it's preferred that it's U.S.-based, but finding U.S. supply for some of these components can be tricky."
Opportunities: "We are already starting to see the pieces come together for an industrial economy in space," says Calnan. "If you believe that's going to happen, it follows logically that you need a metal processing capability. We're going to provide that, and we're figuring out different ways to do that and build out that ecosystem of companies right now. . . . If we can do that, it's going to be big."
Building on his research at Colorado School of Mines, Pawelski says he sees an opportunity to move from cislunar manufacturing to lunar manufacturing. "Gravity on the Moon is far less than it is on the Earth, so if you could build things on the Moon and launch them from the Moon, you could get things to low Earth orbit . . . with less energy and less propellant than it would take to launch from Earth."
Needs: Employees and capital. Calnan says CisLunar needs "a few more engineers" as the company brings in additional funding from both private investors and government grants. "I could easily see the team doubling over the next year or so," he forecasts.