In recent years, in-space manufacturing has moved from the realm of sci-fi to become a reality. The microgravity conditions and near perfect vacuum in outer space have made it possible to produce materials and components with properties that simply can’t be replicated on Earth. But how practical is in-space manufacturing and what could it achieve?
The commercialisation of space has inspired research scientists to find out more about what can be produced in this unique but challenging environment. Not only is it becoming easier to undertake experiments in space, thanks to growing use of in-space robotics and more satellite launches, but there is also increased demand for satellite repair and maintenance, and life extension services. To illustrate the speed at which space is being commercialised, SpaceX launched 172 Starlink satellites in May 2021, bringing their constellation to over 1,600, and OneWeb, which is part owned by the UK Government, has recently launched a further 14 satellites, taking their total number to more than 300.
One of the fastest-growing areas of application for in-space robotics is to maintain in-orbit satellites, including geostationary satellites, particularly those that have been in orbit for decades and are nearing the end of their life. The microgravity and vacuum conditions that exist in space make manufacturing processes easier to control. In addition, the ability to capture solar radiation and transform it into directional, thermal energy has facilitated the production of advanced materials, such as ultra-strong glasses and ceramics.
Earlier this year, CeramTec Group successfully produced ceramic sample containers on board the International Space Station (ISS). These containers, which are made from silicon nitride, are being used in experiments to increase our understanding of transition processes, atomic structures and material properties. NASA is also attempting to demonstrate 3D printing technology in space using regolith simulating feedstock material, in other words, using simulated lunar soil. In the future, this could allow colonists on the moon or Mars to produce some of their own habitats and reduce the need to take large volumes of construction materials into space.
Despite the benefits of in-space manufacturing, the conditions pose a number of specific challenges. Processes and equipment are likely to be exposed to high levels of radiation, and they must be able to withstand exposure to solar flares. They may also be exposed to extreme temperatures, both cold and hot. Once in orbit, it can be challenging to control systems and process machinery in real time from Earth, and such systems are not easy to repair or replace. While satellite launches are more frequent, the upfront costs required to get components and materials into space remain significant.
Undeterred by these challenges, global space innovators are developing some exciting technologies at pace, which promise to raise the bar for in-space robotics and additive manufacturing. Made in Space Inc. has a number of granted patents aimed at manufacturing in space including a European patent (EP3027389B1), granted on 27 January 2021, which is aimed at 3D printing in microgravity.
Based in California, Space Systems Loral (SSL) has a granted US patent (US11014303B1) for a means of in-orbit additive manufacturing in near vacuum and near zero-gravity conditions. This technology employs a robotic servicing vehicle capable of repairing or updating orbiting spacecraft. Usually where non-generic parts are required, these have to be delivered into orbit by means of a rocket launch. The aim of this patent is to provide a robotic fabrication service to produce parts in orbit. At the same time the system is able to control volatile organic compounds, which may be formed as a gaseous by-product of the 3D printing process, preventing them from contaminating sensitive equipment.
Attempting to solve the problem of mounting space debris, Chinese company, Origin Space, launched a robotic platform into the earth’s low orbit earlier this year in order to trial an innovative space cleaning technique. The 30kg NEO-01 robot uses a large net to capture debris, such as paint flecks, nuts, bolts, tools and rocket parts, before burning it using an electric propulsion system. In another example of innovation in this area, the state-owned China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology has been granted a Chinese patent (CN106541142B) for an innovative 3D printing system, which can be used to help clean space.
UK-based start-up, Space Forge, is developing fully returnable satellites that are designed for manufacturing next generation super materials in space. In creating a reliable return, Space Forge is aiming to advance the expansion of the microgravity market for premium research and development applications by lowering barriers to entry.
Commenting on the commercial opportunity presented by in-space manufacturing, Joshua Western, CEO and co-founder of Space Forge, said: “There are huge opportunities for in-space manufacture enabling us to make space work for humanity, but currently key barriers exist - namely no dedicated platform and no soft return. The key to commercial in-space manufacture is accurate, manageable return.”
From an intellectual property perspective, the pace of global space innovation in our quest to commercialise and increase understanding about what can be achieved in space, means early-stage patent protection is vital. As the market matures, those that can demonstrate a product or process that is more resilient than that of their competitors and brings significant cost and operational benefits, could secure a position of market dominance. As well as helping to attract funding for growth, patent protection could potentially open the door to revenue-generating opportunities, such as licensing agreements.
Fuelled by growing use of in-space robotics and AI-enabled systems, the surge of interest in in-space manufacturing is only just beginning and no one knows how many discoveries lie ahead. Instead of using the mantra ‘the world’s your oyster’ perhaps we should rephrase it as ‘in-space innovation is your oyster’.
Michael Jaeger is a partner and patent attorney at European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers. A member of the firm’s Electronics, Computing and Physics Group, Michael has specialist experience of advising innovative businesses about how to protect their IP in the global space sector.