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An artist depiction of a large reflector manufactured in orbit.
European aerospace manufacturer Airbus wants to make satellites in orbit from space junk in four years. (Image credit: Airbus)

European aerospace company Airbus will send a metal-crafting 3D printer to the International Space Station next year as a first step in its plans to set up an orbital satellite factory. 

The printer, called Metal3D, can work with metals that melt at temperatures of up to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit (1,200 degrees Celsius). It will be the first metal 3D printer on the space station , Airbus said in a statement (opens in new tab) , and will enable astronauts to print parts such as radiation shields and various tools. (American company Made In Space, now a subsidiary of Redwire, has sent several 3D printers to the space station , but none of them can print metal.)

Future versions of the 3D printer, the company added, will be able to make objects using lunar soil and also recycle parts from old satellites. 

Related: 3D printed satellite antennas can be made in space with help of sunlight

The Metal3D printer is only one component in a range of technologies developed by Airbus with the goal of setting up a space factory. In a series of videos, Airbus showed off a robotic manipulator designed to assemble spacecraft. 

"Airbus' solution is to launch kit parts that will be assembled in space by the robotic arms from our space factory," the company said in the statement.

The robotic arms will be able to build each other in orbit, Airbus said, but could also be used to repair and refuel spacecraft. 

The company said it would like to be able to manufacture entire satellites in space in the "next three to four years."

"Since there is enough space in space, it will be possible to build bigger structures such as huge reflectors, allowing telecom satellites to cover the entire planet," Airbus said in the statement. 

Moreover, producing satellites in space will also be kinder to the environment, the company said, as fewer polluting rocket launches will be needed. 

"The material for production can be sourced from the space debris floating around," Airbus said. "So with the space factory, Airbus is also helping to clean up space and ensure a sustainable future for the industry."

When it comes to the Metal3D printer, the space station is only its first destination. By the end of this decade, Airbus said, a similar device might be churning out parts of lunar rovers and habitats directly on the surface of the moon. 

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Tereza Pultarova

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science, Space.com, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.