Elizabeth Howell contributor with Forbes Feb 12, 2020
In the quest to build bigger things in space, one Colorado-based company is readying for an epic construction demonstration mission.
Blue Canyon Technologies will provide the spacecraft vehicle infrastructure supporting a “factory” that will 3D-print solar arrays in space. The mission is called Archinaut One and its lead developer is Made In Space (which has a working 3D-printer on the ISS.) The mission is funded by a a $73.7 million contract from NASA. The amount given to Blue Canyon, a 100% employee-owned company, has not disclosed.
“This could be a game changer for the entire space industry” if the mission works, said Lorie Booth, the systems engineering program manager at Blue Canyon, in an interview. Archinaut is slated to launch no earlier than 2022 and aims to assemble two 32-foot solar arrays in space. And that could save a lot of cost and complication for future missions.
One thing that would become easier is launching things to space. If a payload is too delicate or too big to go on a rocket, no problem — robots could instead make the thing once the spacecraft reaches orbit. In the further future, robot assembly could reduce the time astronauts spend “outside” their spacecraft spacewalking, since robots would be making things instead of them.
In fact, this is already starting to happen on the International Space Station, where the robotic Canadarm2 moves heavy items from place to place under the control of Earthlings. The next obvious leap in technology would be automation, and there is a Canadarm3 slated to join NASA’s moon-orbiting Gateway space station in the 2020s in support of lunar landing missions starting as early as 2024. Canadarm3 would be equipped with some artificial intelligence to maintain Gateway while astronauts aren’t there.
For Blue Canyon, Archinaut One will be a proving mission for its new Saturn-class spacecraft bus, which is larger than what they’ve sent up in the past. (A spacecraft bus is, essentially, the mass produced base model of a spacecraft, which is then customized for particular missions.) At about the size of a small filing cabinet, the company is hoping this bus will be better able to support scientific data gathering for its customers. Bigger buses mean more space to store things, like cameras and instruments.
The 12-year-old company has supported missions for many reference customers, including NASA, the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). As a privately owned firm, it does not disclose revenue details, but Booth said both revenues and employee numbers are growing rapidly. (The company has 215 employees today, after hiring more than 100 in the past year.)
Blue Canyon also provided the attitude control systems for the first interplanetary CubeSats — MarCO — which successfully flew to Mars in 2019 to support the landing of the NASA InSight mission. When asked if the company could see itself helping to build structures near the moon and Mars, Booth was enthusiastic: “I don’t see why not,” she said.