Programme looks forward to automated factories in space

Future space equipment could one day be built in off-planet automated factories, following a new programme by UK firm Magna Parva.

The Technology Strategy Board-funded scheme will develop the idea of off-planet manufacturing for technology such as solar sails and antenna reflectors, which could cut the costs and complexity of such structures.

If this equipment were manufactured in space it could be made thinner, lighter and with fewer parts because it would not have to withstand the force of Earth’s gravity or fold compactly into a launch vehicle.

Magna Parva’s director, Andrew Bowyer, told The Engineer he thought technology from the Consolidated Off Planet Manufacturing and Assembly System for Large Space Structures (COPMA) project could become a reality within five to 10 years.

‘It’s about adapting the manufacturing for requirements in space,’ he said. ‘There are some challenges to overcome because you’re in a vacuum but actually that suits this process.

‘We’re looking at different methods of making it effective energy-wise, perhaps using some of the radiation that is naturally around you rather than having to put a lot of energy in.’

One of the key manufacturing processes Magna Parva will examine is ’pultrusion’ (from pull and extrusion), where composite material is pulled through a shaped die to create long structures with continuous cross-sections, for example, tubes.

Pultrusion is already used to make structures with embedded devices such as stress sensors or fibre-optic cable and Magna Parva hopes to apply this technology for space use.

Bowyer estimated that manufacturing equipment around 1m3 in size could make 200m-long structures. ‘The process itself is very easy to control and not particularly manually intensive,’ he said.

‘We’ve got some ways of joining structures automatically and there’s a lot of detail when it comes to joints and how you would create unlimited lengths of structure.’

Space factories could even aid efforts to send manned missions to Mars, he added. ‘If we are going to send people to Mars, ultimately what we need to do is launch from space not Earth.

‘So to be able to create infrastructure to enable that to happen, this is the sort of enabling technology that will create that opportunity.’

The Technology Strategy Board has given Magna Parva £30,000 to develop a proposal, which it hopes to take to the European Space Agency in around six months’ time.