NASA Technology Mission Directorate Vision for In-Space Manufacturing

The National Research Council has released a report, commissioned by NASA and the US Air Force, on 3D Printing in Space.

Although fairly positive about the long-term value of 3D printing in space, the study throws some cold water on its near-term prospects.

“Many of the claims made in the popular press about this technology have been exaggerated,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Latiff (USAF-ret.), chairman of the committee that wrote the report.

The report says that 3D printing could contribute to space missions by enabling on-orbit manufacturing of replacement parts and reducing logistics, but the specific benefits and scope of the technology’s use remain undetermined.

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Written by Astro1 on July 21st, 2014 , Innovation

NASA’s Centennial Challenges prize program is seeking new ideas for prizes and new partner organizations. The question remains whether Congress provide allocate money for new challenges. Funding has been hit or miss (mostly miss) for the last decade.

Current information about Centennial Challenges is available at The new Notice of Opportunity is available here.


Written by Astro1 on December 21st, 2013 , Citizen Science (General), Innovation

Maybe it was related to the first succcessful free flight of NASA’s Morpheus lander or the launch of China’s Chang’e 3 lunar probe. For whatever reason, there seems to be a pre-Christmas rush on planetary press conferences and announcements. In the last six days, three separate projects have revealed details of their plans for robotic missions to the Moon and Mars.

Moon Express

Last Thursday, Moon Express unveiled its MX-1 lunar-lander design in front of 10,000 people at the closing session of Autodesk University in Las Vegas.

Moon Express MX-1 lunar lander

Moon Express, which is competing for the Google Lunar X-Prize, said the lander will use hydrogen peroxide and kerosene as propellents. Hydrogen peroxide can also be used, by itself, as a monopropellent. Moon Express noted that hydrogen peroxide can be manufactured from water that is available on the Moon, which it believes “would be a game changer in the economics of lunar resources and solar system exploration.”

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Written by Astro1 on December 10th, 2013 , Commercial Space (General), Innovation, Lunar Science, Robotics


The US Army is working to develop a Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) that uses liquid body armor that hardens into a bulletproof solid within milliseconds. The suit would provide a soldier with heat, air conditioning, oxygen, would stasis, night vision, enhanced strength, computers, and communications.

The US Army Special Operations Command (SOCOM) believes it can have a first-generation prototype within a year and a more advanced version by 2016.

At the same time, spacesuits are still based on technology which has hardly changed since the 1960’s. Why isn’t NASA working on TALOS-like suits for space? NASA occasionally funds research on advanced spacesuit concepts, but there is no drive for rapid development because, unlike the military, NASA does not have an urgent need. So, research proceeds slowly for a time, until the the grant runs out or the budget gets cut to fund higher priorities tied to near-term missions.

Work on advanced spacesuits might proceed more rapidly under an organization such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The military has little need for spacesuits, however, because of the decades-old unwritten policy that prohibits the military from conducting manned space programs. As a result, spacesuits do not fall within DARPA’s range of interests. And so it goes.


Written by Astro1 on October 10th, 2013 , Innovation

NASA is funding work on a new propulsion system that may enable a 10-kilogram (22-point) CubeSat mission to Europa.

Nathan Jarred of the Universities Space Research Association has received a $100,000 Phase I award from the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts to study a dual-mode propulsion concept that pairs electric and thermal propulsion.

High-efficiency electric propulsion would be used for interplanetary maneuvers, with higher-thrust thermal propulsion reserved for quick Earth orbit escape, drastic orbital maneuvering and orbital insertion at the destination.

Jarred will use the NIAC money to design and optimize the various components of the overall system. He will also design an experiment to evaluate propellant performance within the thermal mode using existing hardware at the Center for Space Nuclear Research.

CubeSat technologies may be the antidote to the growing cost of NASA interplanetary missions. The interplanetary CubeSat missions currently under study are generally limited to the inner solar system, however, due to the propulsion problem. New concepts like this one could change that.

Dual-mode electric-thermal propulsion system for interplanetary CubeSat missions

Written by Astro1 on August 31st, 2013 , Innovation, Nanosatellites

Spiderfab 3D printers creating large in-space antenna structure

Tethers Unlimited has received a $500,000 Phase II award from the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts to continue work on Spiderfab, a system for 3D printing large structures in space. The Bothell, Washington-based company began work on Spiderfab under a $100,000 NIAC Phase I award last year.

“As NASA begins a new chapter in exploration, we’re investing in these seed-corn advanced concepts of next-generation technologies that will truly transform how we investigate and learn about our universe,” said Michael Gazarik, NASA associate administrator for space technology.

Spiderfab combines the techniques of fused deposition modeling (FDM) with methods derived from automated composite layup to enable rapid construction of very large, lightweight, high-strength, lattice-like structures with both compressive and tensile elements. SpiderFab would enable structures to be launched in extremely compact form as raw feedstock, which would be used to create structures optimized for the microgravity environment rather than the launch environment. The technology could also evolve to use orbital debris and extraterrestrial materials as feedstock.

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Written by Astro1 on August 31st, 2013 , Innovation

Stasis pods (habitat) for long-duration space exploration

Spaceworks Engineering is studying a concept that would put astronauts into a deep sleep (hibernation or torpor) for long-duration space missions.

John Bradford of Spaceworks says medical progress is advancing our ability to induce deep sleep states with significantly reduced metabolic rates for humans over extended periods of time. Because astronauts would not be awake and moving around, the habitat volume needed for long missions could be significantly reduced. The slower metabolic rate would reduce life-support requirements as well.

Spaceworks has received a $100,000 Phase I award from the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts to design a torpor-inducing Mars transfer habitat and assess its effect on Mars exploration architectures.

Spaceworks envisions a small, pressurized module docked to a central node/airlock, permitting direct access to the Mars ascent/descent vehicle and Earth entry capsule by the crew. Spaceworks believes the torpor approach can reduce the habitat size to 20 cubic meters and 5-7 metric tons (for a crew of 4-6), compared to 200 cubic meters and 20-50 metric tons for traditionally designs.

Written by Astro1 on August 31st, 2013 , Innovation, Space Exploration (General)

Zac Manchester with KickSat sprite satellite prototype

Make magazine has an article on 10 Maker Jobs That Didn’t Exist 10 Years Ago.

Only one of the jobs comes from space exploration / space development, and it isn’t from any of NASA’s megaprojects like Orion, SLS, or the James Webb Space Telescope.

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Written by Astro1 on July 6th, 2013 , Innovation, Space Policy and Management

Spiderfab 3D printers creating large in-space antenna structure

Tethers Unlimited of Bothell, Washington is developing a system to fabricate solar arrays in space, using a combination of 3D printing and automated composite layup. The system, which Tethers Unlimited calls Trusselator, is based on the Spiderfab technology which Tethers Unlimited has been developing under funding from DARPA and NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program. The Trusselator system will enable the deployment of large solar arrays providing many tens or hundreds of kilowatts for solar-electric propulsion missions and space solar power systems.

Trusselator is one of four projects being funded under NASA Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts signed by Tethers Unlimited this week.

Another funded project is SWIFT-NanoLV, which will develop a suite of low-cost, lightweight, compact, and reliable avionics for small launch vehicles. Last year, NASA said that there is a “technology gap” in small-launch-vehicle avionics, which it cited as the reason for canceling the Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge before the competition even began.

Also funded are SWIFT-HPX, which will develop a Ka-band transceiver to provide high-speed (100 megabit-per-second) cross-links and downlinks for nanosatellites, and SPIDER (Sensing and Positioning on Inclines and Deep Environments with Retrieval), which will develop robotic technologies to traverse craters, ravines, and other difficult terrain on asteroids and planetary bodies using anchored tethers.

Written by Astro1 on May 22nd, 2013 , Innovation

Researchers at the University of Connecticut and Penn State Altoona have developed nanoscale antennas that convert sunlight to electricity with much higher efficiency than solar cells — up to 70%. See articles here and here.

The idea of using nanoantennas to collect solar energy has been around for a while, but fabricating the antennas has been a problem up to now. Brian Willis, associate professor of chemical, materials, and biomolecular engineering at the University of Connecticut, believes he has solved that problem, using the atomic layer deposition (ALD) fabrication process, which he developed in 2011 at the University of Delaware.

If perfected, this technology could be a boon for spacecraft and satellite design.

Written by Astro1 on April 28th, 2013 , Innovation

Tim Pickens, who developed the propulsion system for SpaceShip One, talks about the significance of the project.


Written by Astro1 on April 11th, 2013 , Innovation, Scaled Composites, Space History

RapidSCAT radar scatterometer for wind-speed measurements installed aboard International Space Station

In a clever reuse of existing hardware, NASA will install a microwave scatterometer aboard the International Space Station. The new instrument, which NASA has dubbed RapidScat, uses test hardware originally built for the QuikSAT satellite program. Scatterometers are instruments for remotely measuring the ocean surface wind speed and direction. The ISS-RapidSCAT instrument will help improve weather forecasts, including hurricane monitoring, and understandings of how ocean-atmosphere interactions affect climate.

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Written by Astro1 on February 5th, 2013 , Innovation, Space Stations

Spiderfab 3D printers creating large in-space antenna structure

3D printing for large space structures has gotten considerable press recently, following a press conference by startup company Deep Space Industries. Unnoticed by the press is Tethers Unlimited, a small company in Bothell, Washington that’s already working on a 3D printer for large space structures.

Tethers Unlimited has received a $100,000 grant from the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts to begin development of the technology, which the company calls Spiderfab.[August 2013 Update: TU has received an additional $500,000 to continue work for two more years.]

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Written by Astro1 on February 4th, 2013 , Commercial Space (General), Innovation

There’s no question that exoplanets are the hottest topic in astronomy right now. Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society reports that 30% of all papers presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting this month were on exoplanets. Unfortunately, current telescopes do not permit exoplanet researchers to go beyond what Dr. Geoff Marcy calls “census taking.”

A 100-meter space telescope would revolutionize the field of exoplanet research. It would also be useful in other areas of astronomy, of course.

The Keck Institute for Space Studies is funding the development of an innovative concept for building such a telescope from self-assembling components. This technique would eliminate the need for development of a large and very expensive new rocket.


Written by Astro1 on January 19th, 2013 , Innovation

US Air Force Academy FalconSAT-7 space telescope CubeSat tested aboard microgravity aircraft "G Force One"

Here’s another example showing the utility of human-tended experiments on parabolic flights for technology development. This time, it’s low-cost CubeSat hardware.

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Written by Astro1 on January 16th, 2013 , Innovation, Nanosatellites Tags:

Several recent developments show that the Interplanetary CubeSat concept, which we reported on previously, is continuing to gain mindshare.

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Written by Astro1 on November 15th, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites

NASA PhoneSat low-cost satellite using Nexus smartphone

NASA’s PhoneSat project has won the Popular Science‘s 2012 Best of What’s New Award for innovation in aerospace. PhoneSat will demonstrate the ability to launch low-cost, easy-to-build satellites with advanced capabilities enabled by off-the-shelf consumer smartphones.

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Written by Astro1 on November 15th, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites

Small, low-cost robots are an important technology for future planetary-science missions. At some destinations, such as Titan, imprecise terrain knowledge and unstable weather cycles make single-robot landings problematic. Teams of robots, landing at multiple locations, would provide redundancy and allow rapid planetary reconnaissance.

Landing large numbers of small robots at multiple locations is difficult with conventional technology. Current robot designs require devices such as parachutes, retrorockets, and airbags to cushion impact and maintain the robot in proper orientation. These devices do not scale down well. NASA envisions teams of dozens (or even hundreds) of small robots, weighing only a few pounds each. Landing these robots will require new technology.

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Written by Astro1 on September 8th, 2012 , Innovation, Robotics

Atmospheric confetti, inchworm crawlers, blankets of ground-penetrating radar: those are some of the unique mission concepts enabled by printable spacecraft technology.

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Written by Astro1 on August 29th, 2012 , Innovation

unar cave (lavatube) opening or "skylight"

Astrobotic Technology, Inc. and Carnegie Mellon University have received NASA funding to begin work on Spelunker, a prototype mission concept to explore a lunar cave.

Although the Moon has never had running water, which is responsible for most caves on Earth, it does have volcanic caves called lava tubes. In some locations, these tubes have partially collapsed to form openings called skylights. The Spelunker mission calls for landing on the rim of a skylight, followed by tethered descent of a power/communications hub and multiple robots. The robots would explore the interior of the cave using a combination of driving and hopping.

Right now, Spelunker is funded by a $498,411 Phase II grant from the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts. Phase II studies will address the feasibility of skylight access, robot configurations for in-cave mobility and subsurface sensing, terrain modeling in darkness from a lightweight mobile platform, and autonomous exploration with hopping robots.

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Written by Astro1 on August 28th, 2012 , Commercial Space (General), Innovation

US Army Kestrel Eye tactical reconnaissance satellite for warfighters

The development of small, low-cost off-the-shelf satellite technology is enabling new capabilities for military as well as civilian users. The US Army is taking advantage of this technological revolution by developing three new satellites to provide tactical imaging for the warfighter.

Kestrel Eye

The Technology Center at the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command is developing Kestrel Eye, an imaging reconnaissance nanosatellite that can be tasked by warfighters on the ground. Kestrel Eye will produce images with a resolution of 1.5 meters (5 feet), which can be downlinked directly to soldiers in the field.

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Written by Astro1 on August 26th, 2012 , Innovation, Military Space, Nanosatellites

Tumbleweed rovers are inflatable balls with mechanical control structures. Rolling across the Martian surface like a mechanical tumbleweed, such a rover could move faster and cover more ground than a wheeled rover like the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory, at much lower cost. NASA and a number of universities have built and tested prototypes. NASA has tested prototypes in the Mojave Desert and the frozen waste of Antarctica.


A tumbleweed rover would use the Martian wind for locomotion and shifting balance for control. According to previous work at JPL, tumbleweed rovers could achieve speeds of 20 miles per hour in typical afternoon winds, compared to a top speed of 0.1 miles per hour for Curiosity. A tumbleweed rover 6 meters in diameter could climb over one-meter rocks and travel up 20-degree slopes in moderate winds and 45-degree slopes in strong winds. A 6-meter diameter rover would have a mass of 44 pounds and a 44-pound science payload. (The Curiosity rover weighs over 1,980 pounds.) Additionally, the rover’s inflatable ball can function as both parachute and airbag for the landing, saving on overall system weight.

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Written by Astro1 on August 25th, 2012 , Innovation, Planetary science

Dr. Vlada Stamenkovic, a post-doctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, plans to use the Arkyd-100 space telescopes, being developed by Planetary Resources, to help find planets orbiting other stars.

The search for exoplanets is one of the most exciting fields of research for astronomy and astrobiology. We’re constantly amazed that NASA isn’t doing more in this area.


Written by Astro1 on August 23rd, 2012 , Innovation, Planetary Resources

The following video was produced by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It shows the capabilities DARPA hopes to achieve through its Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) program.


Contrary to popular belief, current reconnaissance satellites do not play a large role in tactical engagements on the military battlefield. The KH-series reconnaissance satellites were developed during the Cold War for monitoring the Soviet buildup  and verifying compliance with arms-control treaties. Although the Cold War is long over, they are still optimized for that purpose. The immense cost of a KH satellite (comparable to the cost of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, according to former Senator Kit Bond) means the United States can only afford to have one or two in orbit at any time. The limitations of orbital mechanics mean that they are out of position for most targets at any given time. This is not a problem for long-term studies of stationary or slow-moving mobile targets, but it is completely inadequate for monitoring fast-moving fluid situations on the battlefield. The sort of real-time satellite reconnaissance seen in movies and TV shows is pure fiction.

DARPA’s SeeMe program seeks to turn that fiction into reality. Achieving such capabilities will require responsive, low-cost launch systems such as the air-launch system depicted in this video.

There’s a great deal of commonality between the launch requirements for responsive military space systems like SeeMe and the requirements of commercial space and citizen science.  Much more so than there is with the International Space Station, whose required flight rate is quite limited by comparison.

Written by Astro1 on August 22nd, 2012 , Innovation, Military Space