Could satellites be 3D-printed in order to reduce space junk?

Scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about space junk — the detritus orbiting around our planet which is left over from artificially created space objects like satellites. Estimates are that there are currently around 5,000 objects larger than three feet in orbit around Earth, and tens of thousands of objects smaller than that. This debris poses a hazard to spacecraft and could even eventually make space travel virtually impossible.

Now a researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Media Lab, Danielle Wood, has spoken out about how satellite design could be improved to not only reduce space junk but also to help people from different countries around the world to access space technologies. “The way we operate in space, it matters to everyone on Earth,” Wood said to Space.com.

To counteract the space junk problem, Wood has suggested moving satellite construction off Earth and into space where technologies like 3D printing and modularity could be used to make construction cheaper. “Our current approach mainly depends on doing a design for a satellite that’s complete on Earth,” Wood said. “We can imagine a future in which there are basically small factories available in space.”

This would also allow for a reduction in space junk once a satellite reaches the end of its life. When a satellite is no longer functional, instead of being abandoned to become space junk, it could be split into modular parts which could be reused, or it could be melted into material to be used for further 3D printing. This way satellite parts could be recycled, making construction of new satellites cheaper and not leaving junk floating around our planet.

Another suggestion her team has come up with to improve the state of space is to consider the fuel used to propel rockets into space. Currently, launching a rocket requires massive amounts of toxic rocket fuel which may be poisoning Earth’s upper atmosphere Most researchers in this area are looking at how to reduce the amount of rocket fuel used but Wood has a more radical suggestion: “Can we choose ingredients for spacecraft that are not so expensive or so difficult to operate?” she asks. Her team is looking at whether paraffin wax could be used instead, as it is both safer and less toxic and also cheaper than rocket fuel.

You can learn more about Wood’s ideas for how space technologies can improve life on Earth in her TED talk from 2017.

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