Artemis astronauts engage in lunar surface operations a short distance from a generic lander and rover in this NASA artist’s concept.

WASHINGTON — The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to hear from the space industry about their capabilities to manufacture large structures on the moon.

This is a new project that DARPA announced Feb. 5 called “Novel Orbital and Moon Manufacturing, Materials and Mass-efficient Design.” 

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

DARPA is inviting companies that have technologies in this area to participate in a webinar planned for Feb. 26. The agency does not intend to issue any contracts now but is doing market research for a future solicitation.  

The announcement does not say why DARPA or the Defense Department is interested in lunar systems. This type of project is consistent with the mission of DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office to avoid technological surprise and anticipate what might come next.

Some of the lunar manufacturing technologies DARPA wants to hear about include large, high precision mechanical structures; large solar arrays; large radio frequency reflector antennas, and segmented infrared reflective optics. 

If the Defense Department needed to stand up a base on the moon, the biggest problem would be the transportation of materials and equipment. Access to space is becoming more routine for government and private industry, “but even with regular launches, modern rockets impose mass and volume limits on the payloads they deliver to orbit. This size constraint hinders developing and deploying large scale, dynamic space systems that can adapt to changes in their environment or mission,” DARPA said. 

Manufacturing in space would result in “substantial improvements in structural efficiency, size, resiliency, and precision for future space-based platforms,” the statement said. 

On-orbit manufacturing would be done with advanced materials ferried from Earth, the agency said. “As an example, once we eliminate the need to survive launch, large structures such as antennas and solar panels can be substantially more weight efficient, and potentially much more precise.”

DARPA also wants to explore the possibility of in-situ mining of resources from the moon’s surface. The agency wants to investigate “new materials and manufacturing technologies for construction on orbit and on the lunar surface as well as explore new mass-efficient designs.”

Carter, the program manager, noted that space companies and scientists “have been thinking about on-orbit manufacturing for some time, so we expect to demonstrate new materials and manufacturing technologies by the program’s end.” DARPA envisions a three-phase program each lasting about 18 months. 

Carter said DARPA would like to hear about “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.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...