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Deep Space Industries is a company that proposes to conduct asteroid mining operations. Like its main competitor, Planetary Resources, aerospace 3d printing is a large part of the technology that will drive the development of its prospecting spacecraft. However it has added a 3d printing device that it calls the Microgravity Foundry that will combine asteroid mining with in-space manufacturing.
Asteroid miners face a number of problems. They not only have to extract useful materials from rocks that are hurtling around the sun at unimaginable speeds, but they have to transport those materials to some place where they can be turned into useful products.
The way it would work is that when an asteroid harvester extracts material such as nickel, iron, or other material from an asteroid, the microgravity foundry would use 3d printing technology to turn them into useful products. These would include spare parts for spacecraft, space stations, and satellites, tools to create space habitats, and so on.
The idea is that the more things that can be made in space, the fewer that has to be launched from Earth at great cost. Deep Space Industries believes that a market will, sooner or later, exist for finished products that can be made in space from asteroid materials.
3d printing enables rapid prototyping and relatively quick methods of manufacturing. A customer of Deep Space Industries could order a consignment of – say – spare parts for a deep space vessel even while an asteroid is being mined. The company can program, its Microgravity Foundry to produce the parts and then deliver them once they are printed out.
The company, by the way, also proposes a propellant refinery that would use water extracted from an asteroid and split it into liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, in effect creating rocket fuel on site.