At present, everything used in space has to be constructed on Earth and then launched into space. Construction on earth is limited because of gravity. Extremely large items would collapse on themselves if they were built here on Earth. The new plans for space include a 3D printer, the prototype of which is already in the planning stages. The company, Made in Space, is calling it “Archinaut.” There is already a 3D printer on the International Space Station, however, it is inside. The goal is to print everything out in the open in space. This eliminates the limit on size of the items.
One of the main challenges is going to be achieving 3D printing without a human to supervise the function of the machine. A robot is going to be put in this role. There are a lot of obstacles to overcome as this plan is put into place. Every aspect of space printed machinery has to be customized to fit the environment during the construction process, not just as a finished product. Once this is deemed manageable, however, the possibilities are endless.
Things like satellites and antennas can be made larger than those on the International Space Station. Telescopes exceeding the size of the rockets that now carry them, are a possibility. Many items are assembled in space after the parts are sent separately. The parts for future telescopes are theorized to be too large to go on the current ships. The ships, however, such as the Falcon Heavy, are beginning to increase in size, as well. The new 3D printing goals are aimed at constructing larger space gear for more in-depth research possibilities.
The time frame for this is still unknown. Some venture to say this printing could happen in a decade. Other sources say it could be up to four decade away. There are too many variables to make an appropriate estimation.