Home Research & Education 3D printing in free space: Ariane 6 launches Replicator mission

3D printing in free space: Ariane 6 launches Replicator mission

The Replicator mission by Warsaw (Poland) and Berlin (Germany) based start-up Orbital Matter will launch on an Ariane 6 to demonstrate a new 3D printing technology in orbit, potentially opening the door to new space structures that would otherwise not have been possible and are manufactured with fewer resources.

This development could revolutionize the construction of space structures by minimizing the use of resources and enabling the construction of infrastructure elements directly in orbit, on the Moon or Mars. Orbital Matter’s technology uses a process that allows structures to be built faster in a vacuum as no heat needs to be generated – a challenge as convection cooling is not possible in a vacuum as it is on Earth.

So far, 3D printing in space has mainly been tested on the International Space Station (ISS) to produce tools and spare parts on demand. However, Orbital Matter’s technology would be the first to work in the harsh conditions of open space, which could significantly expand the range of applications for 3D printing in space.

Production in space has the potential to build large structures such as solar arrays, communication antennas and even space stations more efficiently and with less material, as they do not have to withstand the stresses of a rocket launch. Among other things, this could reduce the cost of communications and increase accessibility, making space travel cheaper and advancing the exploration of the universe.

Orbital Matter has already successfully demonstrated that its 3D printing technology works under terrestrial vacuum conditions. With the first launch of Ariane 6, the company will now carry out its first space demonstration: A CubeSat (10x10x30 cm) will print a 50 cm long carrier made of a special polymer material at an altitude of 580 km.

“Thanks to the ESA PUSH opportunity, we’re demonstrating our 3D printer in orbit a remarkable 12 months ahead of schedule,” says Jakub Stojek, CEO of Orbital Matter. “This is a great example of how European technological independence can be built in space, by fostering rapid prototyping for startups across Europe.”

Robert Ihnatisin, Chief Technology Officer at Orbital Matter adds: “Ariane 6 will act as a catalyst for the renewed launch capabilities of Europe, and our experiment during its inaugural flight could help Europe become a leading player in in-space manufacturing, as we demonstrate it is indeed possible to 3D print in exposed space”.

Orbital Matter’s mission was supported by Paris-based launch provider RIDE! space, which was part of ESA’s PUSH tender. RIDE! provides a digital platform for end-to-end launch services and supported Orbital Matter throughout the planning and development of its mission.

“We’re delighted to be part of European space history with our presence on Ariane 6 maiden launch,” explains Valentin Benoit, RIDE! CEO. “The whole team is working hand-to-hand with Orbital Matter to finalise the launch campaign of this ambitious and disruptive 3D printing in space mission. I would like to thank Arianespace, ESA’s Space Transportation and CIC teams (Commercialisation, Industry and Competitiveness) for their support during launch preparations.”

Designed for maximum versatility, Ariane 6 can place satellites or payloads into any desired orbit with its new Vinci relaunchable engine. This technological advance opens up new possibilities for space travel and could make Europe a leading player in space manufacturing.

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