On-orbit manufacturing for in-space infrastructure
Though existing launch vehicle providers provide increasingly affordable access to space, reducing the mass launched to space is still key to minimizing capital costs. This is true regardless of the type of launch vehicle contracted (ranging from small-satellite to heavy-lift). Two methods business operators will use to reduce mass are to (1) not carry all the propellant required to maintain their position in orbit (and instead leverage on-orbit fuel depots) and to (2) not launch parts that can be made and acquired on-orbit. The additional advantage of the latter is that parts made in space do not have to be “beefed up” to survive the strenuous vibrations and shocks experienced during launch. (Think even more mass savings!)
Making parts on orbit will also allow companies to scale as demand increases. For example, adding structural fixtures to an on-orbit fuel depot will support more propellant tanks or adding solar arrays to an on-orbit facility will increase power generation. Eventually, large structures that would not otherwise be possible to launch may be printed in orbit, enabling giant telescopes, deep space antennae, and in-space grid-like solar arrays.
Demonstrations over the past decade have shown that structures can be made and assembled on-orbit. We’ll see these technologies scale from experimental to small production. Manufacturing facilities will take residence in orbiting commercial stations and soon launches will send stores of raw materials used in processes like 3D printing instead of whole spacecraft. We’ll also see various types of manufacturing evolve over the next decade, allowing for more functionality. All this activity will be a precursor to the facilities that will eventually get to take advantage of lunar and near-Earth asteroid resources.