Made in Space

Made in Space
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Moon Manufacturing Adobe’s AI Firefly renders its take on manufacturing on the moon.
UNH research is at the forefront of the burgeoning in-space manufacturing field
By Keith Testa

hen a spacecraft lands on or blasts off from the moon, it kicks up a considerable cloud of dust and debris that, given the lack of gravity, can take years to fully settle. But what if it were possible to manufacture a landing pad on the moon’s surface using a combination of materials already available in space, making a lunar settlement a legitimate possibility?

It may sound like a far-fetched futuristic plot, but there’s a world in which it’s a reality within the next decade — and it’s a world UNH is helping bring into sharper focus.

“When you talk about a mission to Mars or even a lunar settlement, you’re not going to be able to rely on parts being supplied from Earth. If something breaks, you are going to need to be able to manufacture it there, on site,” says Brad Kinsey, associate dean of UNH’s College of Engineering and Physical Sciences. “Companies are already thinking about ways to use materials in space to build a landing pad on the lunar surface. There is talk about a lunar base within 10 years, and the goal is for UNH to be a part of that.”

In-space manufacturing (ISM) is a burgeoning field centered on reclaiming discarded space materials like metal and incorporating natural elements like rocks and sand found on the moon to build new items, giving astronauts tools to make repairs or build replacement parts on the fly.

That version of ISM is considered in-space, for space. Longer term, another version is expected to be in-space, for Earth, potentially manufacturing certain pharmaceuticals or things like crystals for semiconductor microchips for use on Earth in space, which may be more efficient and cost-effective in a microgravity environment.

two people wearing safety goggles walking through the John Olson Advanced Manufacturing Center
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In the John Olson Advanced Manufacturing Center, Brad Kinsey, associate dean of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, works toward advancing in-space manufacturing.
UNH is squarely at the forefront of research in several aspects of the ISM venture. The university is part of a group to have received a grant through the Department of Commerce’s Manufacturing USA program to roadmap ISM for the federal government, and UNH also recently received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to explore ways to recycle and reuse cosmic debris as a way to infuse sustainability into the ISM industry.

Additionally, UNH helped create a campaign around ISM that was one of only two to be included in NASA’s recently completed physical and biological sciences decadal, a written plan that helps outline what NASA should be prioritizing over the next 10 years.

“Our environment has a capacity, and we are already exceeding the ecological footprint from many perspectives, so in the end we will run out of resources. So how do we solve the problem for long-term sustainability for humanity?”
half body shot of Weiwei Mo
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Weiwei Mo, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, is principal investigator on a National Science Foundation grant to infuse sustainability into the in-space manufacturing industry.
“What you have is a group of universities and federal agencies that are all working together to say, ‘What does a space-based economy look like?’” says John Roth, professor of mechanical engineering and director of UNH’s John Olson Advanced Manufacturing Center. “Business decisions previously were not driving factors in space, it was achievement. But there’s been a cultural change (with ISM).”

The prospect of an ISM industry raises thought-provoking questions. How much can we extend the life of our resources on Earth by tapping into what’s available in space? Do we need to be worried about things like pollution and resource management in space given there is no known extraterrestrial life? (The UNH experts firmly believe we do, to keep things safe for future human exploration).

“Our environment has a capacity, and we are already exceeding the ecological footprint from many perspectives, so in the end we will run out of resources,” says Weiwei Mo, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and principal investigator on the NSF grant, whose research is primarily focused on the sustainability elements of ISM. “So how do we solve the problem for long-term sustainability for humanity?”

John Roth wearing a suit and gesturing with his hands
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Olson Center director John Roth.
The early focus of the research has been on utilizing metals and polymers (in combination with moon regolith, or dust on the moon’s surface) to create a composite material for ISM. There are tens of thousands of discarded items orbiting Earth in space, and ISM would allow some of that material to be recycled while also removing it from circulation, where it can be hazardous to space missions. Big picture, the plan would be to utilize robots to create certain structures, such as a landing pad on the moon, Kinsey says, so astronauts have a “safe haven” when they land.

As it helps develop the ISM roadmap, UNH is using the Olson Center as a potential blueprint for creative ways to establish an efficient and equitable ISM industry. The Olson Center is a shared infrastructure facility where companies can use equipment at an hourly rate, saving smaller businesses the cost of purchasing expensive machinery themselves. Roth sees a similar approach being viable — and preferred — in space, leveling the playing field.

“If we’re going to be manufacturing in space, we don’t want 50 companies to lift a mill, we want to lift a mill that 50 companies can use,” Roth says. “We want to make it equitable, and that’s the model the Olson Center has down here — how do we make it level so all these new, nimble companies that have brilliant ideas don’t lose for the fact that it’s very expensive to get up in space?”

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How Did You Find Your Spark?

Weiwei Mo
Because I had witnessed the environmental degradation in China when I was growing up – all the ponds and rivers and lakes in my hometown became eutrophicated and smelled awful, especially during the summer when algae grows crazily, and air pollution was really prevalent when I was young – it motivated me to choose environmental work.

Brad Kinsey
I grew up outside Flint, Michigan, where everybody I knew – my father, my uncles, my neighbors – worked at General Motors, but they mostly worked on the shop floor. Frankly, I didn’t really know what an engineer did when I was growing up, but that’s still where I got my start. My research is in metal forming, and when I was a grad student I worked at a stamping plant in Flint, thinking about how to improve the metal forming process.