Space Construction: The Industry’s New Frontier
In science fiction, there’s usually a gadget to satisfy any need, from food to an entire house. If only things were really that easy.
Building things for space is a uniquely complicated challenge. All of the tools and supplies required need to be small enough to fit on a rocket and strong enough that they won’t break. Likewise, the heavy machinery we would typically use for construction projects, like carry deck cranes and scissor lifts, aren’t outfitted to work anywhere other than Earth.
However, advancements in technology and construction methods are making it possible to accomplish more space development than ever before. At the rate we’re advancing, it’s quite possible that the future of the construction industry will be largely in space.
Let’s take a look at the specifics of space construction and what it entails, or jump to the infographic below.
What is Space Construction?
Space construction is the idea of building in outer space instead of building them on Earth. It can also refer to in-space manufacturing or off-Earth manufacturing which, which is the design of objects in space.
Constructing items in space can be necessary for a number of reasons. When the structure in question is too big to be transported via spacecraft, or when components are too fragile to survive a launch, space construction can be a logical solution.
While space construction has its advantages, it also comes with a whole host of unique complications as well. Standard design techniques and rules of architecture no longer apply without gravity in the picture. And though space construction eliminates the challenge of carrying structures via spacecraft, the supplies and machinery necessary for a build still need to be transported from Earth.
Although obstacles to space construction still abound, engineers and scientists have already learned plenty about the best ways to build in space.
How to Build in Space
Building in outer space is a lot different than building on Earth. For one, the absence of gravity makes the normal conventions of physics and design that govern Earth’s construction completely obsolete. However, just because the architectural design may be expanded in space, that doesn’t mean building in space doesn’t come with its own problems.
One building challenge unique to outer space is making something that can withstand the extreme environments of space. One such issue is the need for material that can withstand the bombardment of radiation. Other issues, like being strong enough to exit the Earth’s atmosphere, but light enough so that it doesn’t hinder takeoff must also be addressed.
Although it seems like these materials are just the prospect of wishful thinking, new building materials may have solved those problems. These new materials are economically sound, able to resist radiation, can be recycled and are longer lasting. Specialized tools have also been made to deal with the effects of microgravity and move large structures around.
Materials for Space Construction
NASA has announced they’re developing technologies and practices to build structures on the surface of other planets using what is known as “in-situ” or on-site resources. Learning how to use these resources can solve many major hurdles to building in space, especially when it comes to transporting the materials necessary for construction.
Another major source of construction materials has been recycled old or worn-out items. One of the materials NASA frequently uses on the ISS is called Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), a special polymer that can be used to make bolts, wrenches and more. When these items break or run out, they can be recycled and the ABS can be reused.
The actual process of breaking down these tools and other items in order to recycle them can be tricky. In fact, the In-Situ Fabrication and Repair project was created specifically for the sole purpose of finding new ways to fabricate, repair and recycle “tools, parts, and habitats and other structures” using raw lunar materials, recycled spacecraft parts, trash, human waste and a variety of other items.
Thanks to specialists like those at the In-Situ Project, new tech now exists to make the salvaging of space materials even more efficient. The Recycler is a machine that reprocesses polymer materials like ABS to be used for the 3-D printer on the International Space Station (ISS).
Crews can feed worn-out tools and materials to the Recycler, which will then transform them back into the polymer base originally used to create them. Then, crews can reuse the polymer to 3-D print other tools and items that can be used for construction and repairs.
Another similar machine called the In-Space Refrabicator actually combines the work of the Recycler and a 3-D printer, making it a sort of “one-stop shop” for repurposing old tools. The In-Space Refabricator can even use materials that traditional 3-D printers can’t, like plastic packaging and foam.
3-D Printers: The Future of Construction
Of all of the many useful tools and machines being invented for space construction, the 3-D printer may very well be the innovation that plays the largest role. With the ability to generate anything from small nuts and bolts to large habitats, the 3-D printer’s universal functionality makes it a technological game-changer for structural advancement in space.
That said, space still presents challenges that make 3-D printing difficult. One of the biggest issues is that of microgravity, which is the absence of gravity and the appearance of weightlessness in space.
Gravity is what allows the layers of 3-D printed material to “stick” as they’re printed and dried. Without the forces ensuring that objects lay properly as they’re being printed, it’s more common for 3-D printed objects to be defective.
Another printer problem caused by zero gravity conditions is structural and design inaccuracy. The slightest mistake in a design or a hiccup during printing can cause an item to be structurally compromised, which in turn can be a recipe for disaster when printing essential tools in the life-or-death vacuum of space.
In an effort to solve these zero gravity obstacles, a company called Made In Space partnered with NASA to develop a special 3-D printer called the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF).
The AMF uses a method developed by engineers in the United States’ Small Business Innovation Research program for the 3-D Printing in Zero-G Experiment. The experiment allowed them to develop a 3D printer that can print just as reliably as a 3-D printer on Earth despite the absence of gravity.
With a functional space printer at the ready, crews can print not just small tools and supplies but entire living structures. On Earth, 3-D printed homes are already a reality, and now, the same types of structures can be 3-D printed in space as well.
The Archinaut One
The Archinaut One is a project from Made in Space that combines a 3-D printer and robotic arms to create a single machine capable of building and assembling large structures in outer space.
Once the Archinaut is finalized, crews on Earth will be able to send it the raw materials and digital design files necessary to build a particular structure. The Archinaut can then print the structure’s components and assemble them to create the finalized structure.
Crews in space need special tools, even for basic construction tasks. These tools need to be easy to use while wearing large gloves and able to withstand the harsh environment of outer space.
Two of the most versatile tools for in-space manufacturing are:
Pistol Grip Tool
The pistol grip tool is a cordless drill that was specifically designed for use in space. It’s designed to prevent hand fatigue and is lubricated using dry film, as liquid lubricants can cause a tool to seize up.
It’s attached computer screen allows the user to adjust drill speed and torque. It’s been heavily used for repairs on both the ISS and the Hubble Space Telescope, making it one of the staple tools of NASA’s space kit.
What would construction in space be without a space crane? Created in Canada and sponsored by the Canadian Space Agency, the Canadian Space Crane (otherwise known as the Candarm) is a little more sophisticated than cranes on Earth. Just like a regular crane, it’s able to reach, handle and attach objects much easier than a human can.
In fact, the Canadarm was so successful that the CSA built another, much bigger version called the Canadarm2. The Canadarm2 is now attached to the ISS and can move like an inchworm with greater flexibility and an arm span that stretches the entire length of the ISS.
Building Space Habitats
The concept of living on another planet is one that has permeated not just the realm of science fiction, but debates of social, political, and environmental progress as well. Whether or not life on Mars, in particular, is a possibility for humans, is a question that scientists, journalists and everyday people have been asking for decades.
With the rapid advancement of space construction technology, we’re closer than ever to achieving sustainable life beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
Expandable Habitats vs. Terrestrial Habitats
There are two main types of habitats that can be created for use in space: expandable and terrestrial habitats. The difference between the two has mainly to do with where they’ll be located.
Expandable habitats are lightweight, inflatable structures that can be created for use on the ground or as free-floating living facilities suspended in space. Terrestrial habitats, on the other hand, are more permanent structures that are built on land using transported or in-situ materials. The construction of terrestrial habitats can begin with expandable habitats.
Expandable habitats offer a number of advantages. Perhaps their most obvious benefit is that they’re cheaper to transport into orbit because they are lighter and take up less space before being inflated.
Two of the most notable expandable habitats are the TransHab and the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM).
NASA originally came up with the concept of inflatable habitats in the early ’60s, and they developed an experimental module called the TransHab in the late ’90s. The TransHab was developed as a possible alternate shelter to the traditional living quarters astronauts typically use.
The patents for the TransHab’s design were later bought by the private company Bigelow, who soon developed their own inflatable module.
The BEAM is an expandable space station module that is currently attached to the ISS, where it was originally installed in May 2016.
The BEAM was originally intended to only stay attached to the ISS until late 2020, but that has now been extended through 2028. The success of the BEAM bodes well for expandable habitats as a primary tool for future space exploration and habitation.
Terrestrial habitats more closely resemble Earth structures, as they’re designed for permanent placement on the ground of a given planet. While terrestrial habitats can be built from supplies sent from Earth, engineers are hard at work looking for a way to transform the planetary resources into building supplies.
Regionally sourced habitats can be tricky since much of the materials local to different planets aren’t safe for human exposure. The dust on Mars is toxic to humans, for instance, and other materials on other planets may not be as viable for construction as the ones used on Earth.
Engineers are testing methods for printing buildings on extraterrestrial planets using resources from that planet. Although no methods have yet been perfected, the results are looking promising, as shown in a contest designed to replicate 3-D printing on Mars.
Two proposed terrestrial habitats are the Lunar Base and the Mars Ice House.
The Lunar Base
The most promising and seemingly easiest method may actually be the use of a 3-D printer using lunar materials. All this is to say that a 3-D printed lunar base made of moon rocks might just happen.
The Mars Ice House
One of NASA’s Centennial Challenges was the design of a 3D printed habitat for deep space exploration, and the Mars Ice House was the winner of that challenge. Their designers utilized a “follow the water approach,” as they put it, using water as the primary material for 3D printing.
It allows for a natural, above-ground living environment that utilizes water and ice’s ability to filter the sun’s radiation and provide natural light, similar to how earth-sheltered homes utilize natural light.
Future Building Materials
We’ve come a long way with recycling and using on-site materials, but we still have a long way to go. Futuristic building materials will be able to solve a lot of problems that building in space can have. Here are a few of the most promising ones:
According to a study from the National Space Society, concrete may be a useful material for manufacturing in space. Reinforced concrete will go a long way, especially since one of the two ingredients for concrete (aggregate) can be replaced with lunar dust, resulting in a stronger product.
Add in the fact that advancements like self-healing concrete and light-generating concrete are becoming viable, and concrete begins to look like an inexpensive and incredibly useful material for space construction.
Transparent aluminum is one of the most promising materials to be utilized for space manufacturing. It’s a ceramic alloy that’s 85 percent harder than sapphire and is resistant to oxidation, corrosion, and radiation.
Space radiation can be a problem for astronauts, but transparent aluminum can help provide some intense protection for people in space.
Graphene is an amazing material with fantastic implications in various projects. It’s a 3D printed carbon that has 200 times the strength of steel but is much lighter than it as well. Because it’s so lightweight, it would be easier transporting it to space and using it to build a variety of tools, vehicles and buildings.
Construction Projects in Space
Utilizing the different methods and materials outlined above, many projects are already underway. Although some of them may only be in the pre-production phase, it’s still a testament to how far everything has come along.
Here are three of the most significant projects are:
International Space Station (ISS)
The assembly of the ISS was a massive endeavor of space architecture. Construction of the main portion of the ISS began about 20 years ago, completing in 2011.
NASA explained that components of the station were constructed on Earth and then launched into space to be assembled originally by astronauts using:
- The Pistol Grip Tool
- The Canadarms
- Attachment of the BEAM
Additions and renovations are still underway, with inclusions like the European Robotic Arm from the ESA. This attachment will be used to assemble the Russian segments of the ISS and transfer small payloads from inside of the space station to the outside in the confines of space.
The Mars Colony
Building a colony on Mars has been an idea in the minds of many since practically the discovery of the red planet.
It’s no secret that Elon Musk wants to go to Mars, and his company, SpaceX, plans to colonize the red planet in 2022. The plan is to use ships as the first steps for the base and colony. From there, construction on the colony will begin.
There are currently different proposals set out to build the Mars colony, such as:
- The Mars Ice House
- Making bricks for construction using in-situ materials
- 3D printing using recycled, shipped, or in-situ materials
The Lunar Gateway
The Gateway will be NASA’s new spaceship, acting as a temporary home and office for astronauts, equipped with a variety of labs, living spaces and docking ports. The plan is to build it with at least five rocket launches, getting all the materials needed for the station into space and building as they are transported.
Large parts of the Gateway will be sent up to space for automatic assembly through a partnership of different companies and international agencies. The start of construction will begin sometime in 2022, and although not everything will be created in space, it’s still a testament to how far designing and building what essentially amounts to an office space has come.
The idea of occupying space isn’t as far off as it once may have seemed, just as humans are now building underwater structures. In fact, it’s actually happening right now, with plans to colonize other planets already underway. The construction industry will have plenty of work to do once everything becomes official, and although space and Earth are fairly different, the needed skills for construction can be utilized for space architecture.