Currently, everything that goes into orbit has to fit on top of a rocket, inside its nose cone. When the shuttle was still operational, its cargo bay could carry more volume. However, the fact that everything that humans use in Space, from satellites to space station modules, have to be sent from Earth has been a limiting factor. The International Space Station took years to build because it had to be assembled with pieces launched from Earth. A company called Made in Space means to change that state of affairs. In partnership with NASA, the firm had just made a breakthrough, according to Space.com.

Building things in space from materials mined in space

Made in Space has succeeded in churning out a number of polymer alloy objects, including a 33.5-inch long beam, using a 3D printer inside a thermal vacuum chamber at the NASA Ames Research Center where the temperature and vacuum conditions of low Earth orbit.

The company has already deployed two 3D Printers on the ISS to test manufacturing in microgravity with considerable success.

Using the Archinaut to build structures in space

A space based 3D printer is envisioned as one element of a spacecraft that Made in Space calls the Archinaut, which will combine the technology with robotic arms to create and assemble large structures in space. Eventually using material mined on the moon or from an asteroid, the Archinaut could construct things like communications relays, orbiting telescopes, or even huge space-based solar power collectors.

What happens next?

Made in Space and NASA would like to launch a prototype of the Archinaut sometime in 2018, though that date might slip. The idea is to build a structure that is just a few meters in diameter to demonstrate that the technology is viable.

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NASA will certainly find lots of use for the Archinaut once it is operational and capable of building structures that are hundreds of meters across. Made in Space claims it already has a commercial customer, which it has declined to name, that is interested in using the technology. The company is in negotiations with a half dozen other potential clients, government entities and private firms, for the utilization of the manufacturing technology.

Visionaries have dreamed of creating a space-based economy for decades. Lunar and asteroid mining, which has achieved some degree of respectability recently, is one part of that equation. Manufacturing, which would use lunar and asteroid materials, is another part that promises to create a new industrial revolution.