Above: International Space Station/Image Source: European Space Agency
Airbus, a European multinational aerospace corporation, is preparing to send a metal 3D printer to the International Space Station as early as next year, as the first step in its plans to establish an orbital satellite factory.
Metal3D printers can work with metals that melt at temperatures of up to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit (1,200 degrees Celsius). The company was overjoyed to announce that its printer will be the first metal 3D printer on the space station, allowing astronauts to print parts like radiation shields and various tools.
Future versions of the 3D printer, according to the company, will be able to create objects out of lunar soil and recycle parts from decommissioned satellites onboard an orbital satellite factory.
Metal3D and Orbital Satellite Factory
Metal3D, as the name implies, is a metal 3D printer developed by a consortium of partners like Airbus Defence and Space, AddUp Solutions, and other industrial and academic partners. It prints new parts such as radiation shields, tooling, and equipment directly in orbit using metal as the source material and at 1,200 degrees Celsius. Future versions of the 3D printer may also use regolith (moondust) or recycled parts from decommissioned satellites. By the end of this decade, 3D printers could be used on the Moon to enable a long-term human presence by printing structures for lunar rovers or habitats.
The Metal3D printer is just one of several technologies developed by Airbus with the goal of establishing a space factory. Airbus demonstrated a robotic manipulator designed to assemble spacecraft in a series of videos.
According to the company, “Airbus’ solution is to launch kit parts that will be assembled in space by the robotic arms from our orbital satellite factory. The robotic arms will be able to build each other in orbit, but could also be used to repair and refuel spacecraft. We would like to be able to manufacture entire satellites in space in the “next three to four years.”
The company statement added, “Since there is enough space in space, it will be possible to build bigger structures such as huge reflectors, allowing telecom satellites to cover the entire planet.”
Airbus also believes that because the material for production could be sourced from the floating space debris, the space factory could effectively help clean up space and ensure the industry’s long-term viability.
When it comes to the Metal3D printer, the space station is just the beginning. It would be very important for the creation of the orbital satellite factory. By the end of this decade, Airbus could be using a similar device to construct parts of lunar rovers and habitats directly on the moon’s surface.