WASHINGTON—The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is launching the Novel Orbital and Moon Manufacturing, Materials and Mass-efficient Design program, or NOM4D—a program that could enable manufacturing in space and on the moon’s surface.

“NOM4D’s vision is to develop foundational materials, processes and designs needed to realize in-space manufacturing of large, precise and resilient Defense Department systems,” says Bill Carter, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office.

DARPA is launching the program in response to the natural limitations of rocket launches in placing larger structures and systems in orbit, the agency said. While the launch industry has expanded significantly in recent years, rocket launches are inherently limited. To solve this problem, DARPA is looking at placing smaller pieces of a structure on orbit with multiple launches, and then assembling them in space. Or even collecting materials from the moon to build with.

“We will explore the unique advantages afforded by on-orbit manufacturing using advanced materials ferried from Earth,” adds Carter. “Large structures such as antennas and solar panels can be substantially more weight efficient, and potentially much more precise. We will also explore the unique features of in-situ resources obtained from the moon’s surface as they apply to future defense missions.”

Manufacturing in space could also enable more flexibility in the design of space systems. Today, most satellites are designed to be as compact as possible in order to be integrated with and launched on rockets. But by assembling systems in space, systems could be designed without some of those volume restrictions, allowing them to be more mass efficient.

“We’re looking for proposers to come up with system designs that are so mass efficient that they can only be built off-earth, and with features that enable them to withstand maneuvers, eclipses, damage and thermal cycles typical of space and lunar environments,” says Carter. “Given the constraints of ground test, launch and deployment, the traditional approach to designing space structures is not likely to result in dramatic improvements in mass efficiency. In order to take the next step, we’ve got to go about materials, manufacturing and design in a completely new way.”

With NOM4D, DARPA will work with participants over three 18-month phases to develop precise, mass efficient structures that could be used for on-orbit construction. Each phase will focus on one of three applications: large solar arrays, large radio frequency reflector antennas, and segmented infrared reflective optics.