The high cost of launch represents a massive opportunity for companies that can move the needle towards less mass.
On the International Space Station, 3D-printing technology from Jacksonville, Florida-based Made In Space has produced more than 200 components since 2016. The company's Archinaut aims to leverage additive manufacturing and other processes for off-Earth builds of larger structures as soon as 2022.
Made In Space isn't the only manufacturer venturing into this new frontier. Companies are looking to brew beer, bake cookies, and make DNA origami crystal in space.
There are big questions: Can microgravity or zero gravity allow for better manufacturing processes? Could we grow enough produce to feed the crew on a space station? How can we make pharmaceuticals in space? Or convert frozen water on the Moon and Mars into rocket fuel?
Maxar Technologies is on the leading edge of this new space race. "It's a really exciting topic," says Al Tadros, the company's Palo Alto, California-based vice president of space infrastructure and civil space. "You can envision how sci-fi it seems -- vehicles and habitats and all sorts of things that are huge that can't be launched. That's the direction we are heading: being able to to assemble and manufacture things in space."
Maxar's SPIDER (Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot) project is the first step in that direction. Targeted for launch on NASA's OSAM-1 mission as soon as 2022, SPIDER will attempt to assemble an antenna reflector in orbit. "At Maxar, we build some of the world's largest communications satellites in geostationary orbit," says Tadros. "One of the largest portions of that is the reflectors that transmit the signal down to Earth."
Maxar "proposed to NASA if we can actually assemble with unconstrained volume these kinds of antennas in space, we can actually increase the market and the value of the services that can be handled by the satellites."
With in-orbit assembly, the antenna no longer needs to withstand the extreme rigors of rocket travel, and it can be much larger. Reflectors are currently tightly packed into the clamshell-like faring on a rocket's nose cone. "The volume inside that clamshell basically limits what we can build," says Tadros, noting that a four-meter diameter is fairly typical. "We have to package everything inside that four meters, and it requires us to fold things, and then we have to hold them in place to survive launch. It's a lot of shaking, a lot of acceleration, a lot of forces on the satellite."
The status quo is a reflector that's a maximum of about three meters in diameter. "What we're envisioning in the future for solid-surface reflectors assembled in space -- what SPIDER is demonstrating -- is the potential to go to 10 meters or larger," says Tadros. "Those kinds of things right now we can't really put up in space, but we envision the ability to do so with SPIDER."
Why does it matter? "As your antennas in space get larger, you can actually connect to smaller devices, and it can provide more bandwidth -- higher-frequency data," he answers. "There's a lot of connectivity you can provide and provide better if you have larger antennas on your satellites in space."
Due to the task at hand, SPIDER isn't just any old robot. "Just getting alignments that don't change with thermal variations is a challenge, and we have to do this not only accurately, but consistently," says Tadros. "We might have to assemble four or eight antennas on a satellite and we have to be able to do that over and over."
Most of the work on SPIDER is taking place in Palo Alto and at Maxar's headquarters in Westminster, Colorado. If Maxar is going to commercialize SPIDER, Tadros notes, "One of the hardest things is to make it simple and cost-effective. This is not just a one-off or a massive exploration. This is a capability we want to have for all of our satellites, and for our customers to be able to afford."
Tadros says he sees the possibility for the in-orbit assembly of not just reflectors, but entire satellites, and that's a game-changer for launch costs. "If you can manufacture the structure in space, it doesn't have to survive launch, so it doesn't have all that mass and bulk that you had," he explains. "What would a satellite or spacecraft have to look like if it's never seen gravity and it doesn't have to survive the weight of gravity? There are really interesting designs and structures that come out of that."
Washington-based Tethers Unlimited is Maxar's partner on SPIDER. The company's MakerSat "will demonstrate the manufacturing of a 10-meter truss, then we're going to do some experiments on it," says Tadros. "Of course it's not just the manufacturing, it's the metrology that goes with it. How well is it manufactured? How well is it aligned? If we put payloads on this, will it actually point correctly?"
Tadros likens the MakerSat to a twist on a 3D printer. "It provides heat, mixes in the materials, and it extrudes pieces that are then effectively welded together," he says. "This opens up a world of new materials and processes that Tethers is looking at and others are looking at for other things, even electronics manufacturing in space. The idea is you take up a bag of raw materials, taking it up and then manufacturing what you need in space."
Another area with a lot of potential: the ability to service existing satellites in orbit, or even recycle them. "Some people are looking at even considering orbital debris as needing to be deorbited, can we repurpose orbital debris," says Tadros. "All those rocket stages up in orbit, can we actually repurpose the metal and make use of it while we're in orbit? It costs a lot of money to put it in orbit. Why do we want to bring it back?"
If Earthlings are going to live elsewhere, SPIDER is just the beginning. Using local resources to manufacture habitats -- and most everything else -- "starts to become more of an essential capability the further you get from Earth," says Tadros. "I think that's ultimately what's going to drive this on a very large scale. . . . As we go to the Moon as we go to Mars, we really benefit from the ability to assemble and manufacture in each location."
That's partly due to extreme environmental conditions. A day on the Moon lasts four weeks -- two weeks of sunlight then two weeks of darkness. Temperatures range from -280 degrees F to 260 degrees F.
For that reason, a reliable energy source is critical, says Tadros. Helium-3, an isotope that's abundant on the Moon, is a tantalizing prospect, but the requisite fusion reactor technology hasn't progressed on Earth enough to make it viable.
In the end, he adds, innovation is hard to predict. "I've been in this industry for 30 years, and one of the things I know is that we probably haven't even thought up the real applications that are going to come out of this. That's where applications really are out of the box. I think those are exciting to think about: What can you do from space once you can assemble and manufacture your spacecraft or objects in space?"
Steve Bailey, founder and president of Deep Space Systems in Littleton, Colorado, has been involved with just about every mission to Mars to date, and his company is currently working on a lunar lander for NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Service (CLPS) program.
It follows that Bailey has spent a fair amount of time pondering the possibilities of off-Earth colonization -- and the importance of manufacturing in any plausible scenario. The unavoidable line item is the cost to get to orbit. "It is steadily coming down, but it's nowhere near the level at which the round trip isn't anything but horrifyingly expensive," says Bailey.
There's no crystal ball, he adds, but anything is possible with enough money. The Apollo mission is one example; interstate highways are another. "If you look at how much money it takes to create a city like Abu Dhabi or Dubai or New York, those numbers are just absolutely mindblowing," he adds. "If you could build Dubai located where it is, can you establish a colony on Mars? Absolutely. Dubai blows anything like that away."
He says economics drove Dubai's transformation from "shops and bazaars to this Emerald City," and the same will be true for manufacturing in space.
Based on the trajectory of the last century of innovation, Bailey notes, "It's completely reasonable to imagine that there are machine systems that will be able to dig up the natural resources of a planet, build self-replicating factories, and produce things at exponential growth rates that could lead to things that would be almost impossible to imagine."
The vision: an autonomous network of "building systems, excavation systems, resource-processing systems," says Bailey. "We're just not that far from having a factory that can build factories. That's a very plausible scenario."
But the supply chain couldn't rely too heavily on rockets from Earth. "If you're going to have commerce and you're going to be going from Earth to destinations in the Solar System, just getting into orbit is a huge expenditure of energy," says Bailey. "The numbers are still very daunting. For CLPS, it costs $1 million a kilogram to get stuff from Earth to the Moon."
A rocket "doesn't care whether it's super-expensive microelectronics or whether it's propellant, it's mass and it costs money," he adds. "If you have places where you can refuel and you don't have to bring that propellant from Earth, instead you're launching with 20 percent propellant and you have the 80 percent situation solved by in-space manufacturing, that could make a huge difference."
The main raw material -- water -- is not hard to find. Not only can humans drink it, water is good for radiation shielding and it can be cracked down to breathable oxygen or hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel.
"Water is abundant in the Solar System," says Bailey. "We've found it everywhere we've looked, including on our own Moon, which seems almost impossible. In the permanently shadowed craters, for example, on the Moon, there's a lifetime supply of rocket propellant if you go and extract the water. And there's no doubt that it's there."
Manufacturing in space isn't going to happen in a vacuum, he adds. "I think that if there is an economy that develops within the next 25 years, it's going to be because government -- hopefully, ours -- will have decided more or less like they did with the interstate highway system as a good example: Commerce is important, it's going to be enabled by this highway system, we're going to invest, invest, invest, and without fail we're going to link up highways in this way. Or even earlier than that, the rail system out West. The commerce almost immediately took over, but in the beginning, it wasn't that way. You had to pay people to get trains ready to transport things even though there was no revenue coming in at that time."
In this case, building the railroads is developing the aforementioned "self-replicating factory," says Bailey. "If I could work on whatever I wanted to work on with the kind of funding it would take to do it, it would be that factory of factories concept, the so-called von Neumann machine."
Marveling at the pace of innovation in the past century, Bailey remains optimistic such a machine could arrive sooner than expected. "There is going to be such a sharp tipping point," he says. "It will go very quickly from 'Wow, that was impossibly hard' to 'Wow, we just unleashed these machines that can make absolutely anything.'"
Where would he unleash them? "I'm non-sectarian: I can imagine doing this on the Moon, I can imagine doing it on Mars, I can imagine doing it in the asteroid belt," he says. "There are enough near-Earth objects -- you don't have to go to the asteroid belt or the Trojans to find enough material to build a large, large habitable mega-space station or colony."
The Red Planet remains the holy grail for many would-be colonizers, including SpaceX founder Elon Musk. "For people to talk about going to Mars, you have to be a certain kind of crazy, which Elon is," says Bailey. "But you also had to be a certain kind of crazy also to want to go to the New World. If you were just looking for a new place to live, Antarctica would be awesome compared to Mars. You could go out and take a nice fresh breath of air at least, and it's much warmer in Antarctica."
Eric Peterson is editor of CompanyWeek. Reach him at email@example.com.