Ethics experts will support a new DARPA project that could pave the way for the Defense Department’s first space-based manufacturing option.
With an ambitious aim to one day enable the creation of molecules and resources relevant to space flight—inside physical locations beyond humans’ home planet—the Pentagon’s research arm launched a new program to explore the viability of biomanufacturing in space.
A recently released broad agency announcement details the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s anticipated 18-month effort, deemed the Biomanufacturing: Survival, Utility, and Reliability beyond Earth, or B-SURE program.
“[The Defense Department] currently has no space-based manufacturing capability. All resources or equipment needed for a given mission are manufactured on Earth and shipped to space,” B-SURE Program Manager Dr. Anne Cheever said. “The B-SURE program is an important first step in addressing fundamental biomanufacturing questions to develop this capability.”
An emerging area in the broader field of biotechnology, biomanufacturing uses biological systems like microorganisms, or plant and animal cells, to create elements that make-up needed items. In the 53-page BAA, DARPA officials wrote that it “holds the potential to sustainably produce molecules and materials critical to national security with reduced reliance on traditional chemical synthesis precursors, components of which are fossil fuel derived.”
B-SURE was designed to help the defense agency answer foundational questions regarding a future where it could deliver equipment and microorganisms into space that insiders can use to produce materials or resources for things like food and fuel, as needed.
“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,” officials wrote.
They listed three components that will be investigated via the BAA. Those include how microbial systems can use alternative feedstocks like carbon dioxide, moon rocks or human waste for growth; how engineered biological systems function in different gravity; and how those systems function in increased galactic cosmic radiation burdens.
“These three critical components provide the foundation to understand how, and under what circumstances, biology and biomanufacturing can provide on-demand manufacturing for spaceflight applications,” officials wrote.
Data captured from the project will also be used to develop and refine economic models to determine whether this nascent area offers feasible approaches to in-space manufacturing.
Through the presolicitation, officials requested proposals from interested parties that want to help push forward innovation in this realm. Program proposers are able to respond to one or more of three tracks, which each reflect one of the critical components DARPA pinpointed for strategic exploration.
Noting that “future potential biomanufacturing in orbit or on planetary bodies poses unique ethical, legal, and social concerns,” officials also confirmed that the agency will engage experts throughout the process regarding such implications. Proposers are further encouraged to integrate that kind of expertise in their own potential pursuits aligned with the project.
To DARPA, this announcement marks its “initial step to explore and de-risk manufacturing capabilities that leverage biological processes in resource limited environments.”