DARPA to launch DoD’s first in-space manufacturing research program

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'There is a critical DoD need for the continued development and expansion of orbital manufacturing to enable and ensure supply chain resiliency'

WASHINGTON — The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in a new program will explore options to conduct biomanufacturing in space, using biological systems like microbes to construct materials for use in orbital operations.

The project, led by DARPA’s biological technologies office, is called B-SURE, short for biomanufacturing, survival, utility and reliability beyond Earth.

“The B-SURE program is a fundamental study that will explore adapting microbes to space conditions,” project manager Anne Cheever said in a news release. “The hope is that eventually this technology will enable in-space production of molecules relevant to space flight.”

Biomanufacturing is an emerging sector of the biotechnology industry focused on making products using living systems such as microorganisms, animal cells or plant cells. 

DARPA believes this capability will be important for future military operations in space. “There is a critical DoD need for the continued development and expansion of orbital manufacturing to enable and ensure supply chain resiliency, sustained technological superiority, and asset security and repair for current and future operations,” DARPA said in a broad agency announcement. 

The announcement published Nov. 22 asks for proposals by Jan. 25.

“B-SURE will conduct research to establish the feasibility of biomanufacturing in space,” said the BAA. One of the program’s goals is to develop economic models to determine the utility of biomanufacturing as a viable approach to in-space manufacturing.

DoD conceivably could use biomanufacturing techniques to produce fuels or other materials in space using fermentation equipment, feedstocks and microbes that each convert the feedstock into a different useful molecule, material, or product. “This is the eventual goal of space biomanufacturing; bring the microbes and equipment you need to manufacture a wide range of raw materials or products that become critical during the course of the mission,” said DARPA.

“DoD currently has no space-based manufacturing capability. All resources or equipment needed for a given mission are manufactured on Earth and shipped to space,” said Cheever. “The B-SURE program is an important first step in addressing fundamental biomanufacturing questions to develop this capability.”