A rocket blasts off from the launchpad, carrying a couple dozen tons of cargo into space. In the span of a few minutes, the rocket accelerates to around 17,500 miles per hour, orbiting the Earth at nearly 300 miles above the surface. What is this rocket carrying? Perhaps a communications satellite, a NASA spacecraft, or some payload for the military? Actually, the rocket isn’t even carrying a spacecraft at all. Instead, its payload contains several tons of high-grade plastic and pre-fabricated components, material that will be fed to a 3D printer waiting in orbit. This futuristic printer will then use the plastic and components to construct a functional satellite spanning several miles. A mile-wide satellite might sound impossible, but that’s exactly where the space industry is headed. In the future, giant telescopes, communication satellites, solar arrays, and space stations will fill the space around the Earth, and many of them will be several times larger than anything ever built on the surface.
Headquartered in Mountain View, California, Made In Space is working to make that dream a reality. For the past few years, they’ve operated the Additive Manufacturing Facility, one of the only 3D printers in space. While the AMF sits comfortably aboard the International Space Station, Made In Space has plans to launch a new printer that would operate exclusively in the vacuum of space. Their prototype, called Archinaut, is scheduled to launch later this year. Future machines like Archinaut will be able to print nearly everything in orbit—where there’s no limit on size.
“We can manufacture a structure that couldn’t support its own mass if it were on Earth,” says Made In Space CEO Andrew Rush. “The only practical limitation you have is how much material you’re providing to the system.”
The first Archinaut prototype is mostly just a proof-of-concept and won’t be constructing mile-wide satellites anytime soon. “First you crawl, then you walk, then you run,” says Rush. “We’ll start out with manufacturing space-optimized trusses and booms and reflectors to provide a supply capability that we can’t currently achieve.” But once this tech gets off the ground, it can be used to build structures as big as their owners want them.