UNH Researchers Awarded Close to $3 Million to Develop Sustainable In-Space Manufacturing

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

UNH researchers and collaborators will explore creating "in-space factories" to reclaim and retrieve space resources to use in assembling and fabricating space-related hardware. Illustration courtesy of Astroport Space Technologies.

DURHAM, N.H. — From discarded pieces of rockets to satellite fragments, there are tens of thousands of pieces of space junk, or debris, floating around in space causing hazardous conditions for future space missions. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire have been awarded close to $3 million from the National Science Foundation to explore ways to recycle and reuse that cosmic debris to create a sustainable in-space manufacturing (ISM) industry that looks at ways to reclaim discarded space materials, like metal, as well as incorporate natural elements, like rocks and sand, found on the moon.

“The overarching goal of this project is to guide the development of a sustainable in-space industry that minimizes or reduces the impact of overusing our resources here on Earth,” said Weiwei Mo, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “We are at the infancy of figuring how to create the logistics for in-space manufacturing but ultimately, the goal is to produce a space mission using materials and resources from space and to be able to leave the Earth’s resources for other much needed purposes.”

The UNH researchers will collaborate with scientists from Purdue University and Baylor University, with support from NASA and Astroport Space Technologies, to explore ISM and the concept to set up “in-space factories” to reclaim and retrieve space resources to use in assembling and fabricating space-related hardware. This study will develop a framework to assess how in-space manufacturing may impact sustainability on Earth and in space. Researchers will explore ways to minimize the environmental impact by managing waste, assuring quality and optimizing resources used in the harsh environment of space, understanding how terrestrial manufacturing technologies may be sustainably adapted to the space environment and identifying the critical enablers and barriers towards a more sustainable space industry.

The focus is on the potential for long-term benefits for Earth and humans around the globe facing challenges like climate change, resource depletion, environmental pollution and population growth. This project will also be a first attempt in conceptualizing space sustainability. Questions such as what “space sustainability” means and how and to what extent in-space manufacturing is likely to “pollute” the space environment will be explored. The scientists say future knowledge and tools developed around ISM could also have benefits on Earth, citing examples like being able to better distribute manufacturing to severely rural communities to help reduce supply chain issues. They stress that it will be important for the fundamental principles developed for ISM to incorporate sustainable processes and technologies to ensure the pursuit of progress aligns with the goals of environmental stewardship and long-term viability.

“It may all sound futuristic but the need for sustainability is now and is the most important goal in how in-space manufacturing could help protect both Earth and space environments,” said Mo.

The research will also fulfill a significant national goal to advance sustainable ISM in order to create critical emerging technologies. The first countries to develop this capability will stimulate spin-off technologies across a number of related fields and industries.

As of November 2022, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network reported 25,857 artificial objects in orbit above the Earth. More debris that is too small to be tracked—like paint flecks and solid rocket exhaust particles—exists in the near-Earth space environment. All are large enough to be a hazard for spacecrafts and can threaten astronauts traveling into space, the International Space Station, as well as unmanned robotic missions.

The University of New Hampshire inspires innovation and transforms lives in our state, nation and world. More than 16,000 students from all 49 states and 82 countries engage with an award-winning faculty in top-ranked programs in business, engineering, law, health and human services, liberal arts and the sciences across more than 200 programs of study. A Carnegie Classification R1 institution, UNH partners with NASA, NOAA, NSF and NIH, and received over $210 million in competitive external funding in FY23 to further explore and define the frontiers of land, sea and space.