Northrop Grumman [NOC] is serving as subcontractor to a nascent space company developing a product to enable additive manufacturing, aggregation and assembly of large and complex systems in space without astronaut extravehicular activity.

The company, Made In Space, achieved success in two previous additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, endeavors and applied lessons to the company’s latest project called Archinaut, according to Jason Dunn, the company’s chief technology officer (CTO) and co-founder. Made In Space first developed a demonstrator before a commercially-operated, more robust printer called Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF). Both projects are currently on ISS and Dunn said AMF, awaiting installation, is set to start printing within roughly one week.

Dunn said unlike the two previous projects that will work inside ISS, Archinaut is a free-flying robotic spacecraft capability that does 3D printing, manufacturing and assembly all in the harsh environment of space. Archinaut, he said, provides a stealth-like manufacturing capability where a person will only know it’s being launched, but won’t know what it will manufacture. The full vision of Archinaut will enable spacecraft which manufacture and assemble unlaunchable structures once on orbit, enabling new mission capabilities, such as large antennas and base stations.

The potential of Archinaut’s stealth-like manufacturing capability for defense is what interests Northrop Grumman, company spokeswoman AnnaMaria White said. She said Made In Space brings its expertise in microgravity manufacturing while Northrop Grumman offers support in integration, testing and working with NASA. Northrop Grumman is also contributing expertise in electronic interfaces and thermal control analysis. She said the two companies are still working out their cost sharing arrangement.

A third company, Oceaneering Space Systems, is serving as a subcontractor by designing and building the manipulator arm, according to a Made In Space statement. Though large contractors typically serve as primes in relationships with smaller companies, White said since Made In Space has the discriminating technology and expertise in microgravity manufacturing, it makes sense for the company to lead the endeavor.

“Because they’re young, agile and small, it’s a more efficient way to operate with NASA, instead of having to go through us and our larger system and larger overhead,” White said April 13 during an interview with Dunn and Made In Space Head of Product Strategy Spencer Pitman at the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.

NASA in November awarded Made In Space a $20 million, 24-month contract to develop Archinaut as part of its Tipping Point Technologies program, which is to advance the agency’s goals for robotic and human exploration of the solar system. Made In Space, along with Orbital ATK [OA] and Space Systems Loral (SSL), was awarded a contract in the robotic in-space manufacturing and assembly of spacecraft and space structures category. Orbital ATK’s project was for public-private partnership for robotic in-space manufacturing and assembly of spacecraft and space structures. SSL’s was for on-orbit robotic installation and reconfiguration of large solid RF reflectors.

NASA awarded Tipping Point Technology contracts for other capabilities including low size, weight and power (SWaP) instruments for remote sensing applications and small spacecraft attitude determination and control sensors and actuators.

White believes Archinaut could be used to help a satellite repair itself in space or physically adjust to match a new mission. She said Archinaut had a lot of potential in communications as capability is usually limited by both having to fit in the fairing and survive launch. White said Archinaut could develop a larger array and, in the process, create more communications bandwidth. Dunn said Archinaut will be ground operated.

Dunn said Made In Space, of Mountain View, Calif., has about 26 employees and roughly 20 commercial customers. Founded in 2010, Made In Space bills itself as the world’s first space manufacturing company.