Whenever I see pictures of the International Space Station, I think of two things: 1) how cool would it be to visit, and 2) how did they get all those massive beams into orbit?
I know the answer to 2) is “big rockets and the space shuttle”, but it’s still kind of mind-boggling that we hauled all that stuff up there to build the station. This makes the prospect of building larger space stations quite daunting, let alone colonies on the moon or Mars.
What if, instead of building things on Earth and launching them into space, we build more things where we need them?
“If you want ships in space, you don’t want to lift some of these things. You want to make them,” said John Roth, director of UNH’s John Olson Advanced Manufacturing Center. “We’re not going to make computer chips there – they’re complex and lightweight. We can lift payloads and chip payloads before we can lift a beam. »
The center just received a $300,000 grant from NASA to help this process by “planning” (yes, that name was verbalized) the path to space fabrication.
Over the next year and a half, the center will hold four workshops to get stakeholder feedback on the roadmap and release undergraduate students, graduate students, post-docs, faculty, and various other well-wishers. informed on the matter. They will partner with NASA, the University of Alabama and Purdue University to produce a final report.
Judging by their center’s proposal for the project, the heart of space manufacturing will, unsurprisingly, depend on additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing. Most of us encounter this technology via the desktop creation of plastic tchotchkes, but it has matured and become a big part of earthly manufacturing, including metal component manufacturing.
Having a 3D printer in orbit to build trusses for a space station doesn’t solve the launch problem – you still have to get the raw material up there, unless you can scavenge dead satellites and other orbital junk for reuse them – but that seems to be the obvious answer for lunar or martian colonies if local material can be mined and used.
Additive manufacturing isn’t the whole answer, of course. The 27-page proposal discusses the need to develop obvious technologies like better robotics as well as things you might not have considered like “digital twins.” They are computer models of complex equipment in orbit that can be left on Earth to troubleshoot problems remotely.
And, Roth said, there are plenty of other variables to consider.
“If a (space) factory is going to exist, what do you need? Should we have an atmosphere? It’s a lot cheaper if we don’t… but some processes need an atmosphere,” he said, pointing out that grease and oil evaporate in a vacuum, which at at the very least, is not good for the lubrication of machinery. “What are the things that need gravity? Which do we need to spin to create gravity… and what can we do without it? »
In other words, “Can we take the processes as they were developed here on Earth and still have them practical?” How can we do it with the fewest resources?
At the end of 2023, the group will report to Congress and the Commerce Department.
“We’ll say, ‘Here’s the current state, here’s what it will take to get to the next level, and here’s a reasonable timeline for when we can get there,'” Roth said. What happens next depends partly on politics, and we know what that means.
Incidentally, the fact that UNH won this grant reflects the fact that it is a Space Grant university, part of a national network of schools focused on research, education and spatial awareness. (It’s also a Sea Grant and Land Grant University, which covers it pretty well.)
The Olson Center provides support in the form of research, people and machinery to manufacturers trying to develop or find new products or processes. It’s an example of university-industry interaction that has come into much greater focus in recent years, especially in a state that offers one of the weakest supports for higher education of any state.
And finally, for those of you who have read this far, a confession: it sure wouldn’t be cool for me to visit the International Space Station. Judging by the way my stomach handles ocean travel, I’d probably be sick all the time.