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Charting a flight plan for in-space manufacturing

UNH, NASA, and Purdue engineers are collaborating to explore what it takes to commercialize the space manufacturing economy.

UNH, NASA, and Purdue engineers are collaborating to explore what it takes to commercialize the space manufacturing economy.

As companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX, and others step up the pace of commercial space travel, in-space manufacturing (ISM) is becoming a critical consideration, both to establish much needed infrastructure and to ensure exploration continues at pace.

The still-emerging manufacturing paradigm is getting boost thanks to a grant awarded to the University of New Hampshire along with co-collaborators that include a Purdue engineering team, NASA, and the University of Alabama. The partners received a $297,877 award, delivered through NIST’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology Roadmap Program (MfgTech), to explore the equitable commercialization, industrialization, and democratization of ISM. MfgTech has already doled out more than $3.25 million in funding this year to universities and non-profit organizations to develop manufacturing technology roadmaps to strengthen U.S. innovation and productivity across a variety of industries.

The UNH-led research team will analyze barriers to commercializing a space-based manufacturing economy, recommend solutions, and develop guides that will help strengthen U.S. leadership in space, economic growth, and national defense. The team, along with industrial, government and academic partners, will analyze technical and commercial gaps for a space-based manufacturing economy for low-earth orbit (LEO) and on the lunar surface. They will also explore what’s required to create a skilled workforce, an entrepreneurial ecosystem, and an equitable and trusted space landscape through convergent manufacturing.

“If we are going to build the economy between here and the moon — if we’re going to put that flag in the ground — the first thing we need to build is infrastructure,” said Ajay Malshe, a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue. “Manufacturing is the very heart of that infrastructure.”

There is growing demand for launching satellites, supplies and spare parts into space via rockets, but the process is expensive. Researchers estimate that the space commerce economy will reach $1 trillion over the next few decades, and ISM is going to be critical to delivering the infrastructure required to support anticipated growth. Recently, the FCC voted in favor on an inquiry to explore in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing, which should also be a boon to surfacing innovation and best practices designed to mature the category.

For ISM to succeed, researchers, including the UNH-led team, must explore complex issues such as logistics and supply chain in extreme environments, operating manufacturing processes like 3D printing in zero gravity, maintenance, qualifying parts manufactured in space, gathering raw materials, building space-friendly robots, autonomous vehicles, and more. This will be the first private sector-driven ISM roadmap effort, specifically for commercial applications.

This video provides an in-depth look at the possibilities and ramifications of in-space manufacturing.

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About the Author

Beth Stackpole's avatar
Beth Stackpole

Beth Stackpole is a contributing editor to Digital Engineering. Send e-mail about this article to [email protected].

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