Daring AM: Rocket Lab Shoots for the Stars, Astrobotic Wants to 3D Print on the Moon

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Once again, space exploration teams up with the 3D printing industry, launching projects that could change how we explore space. Pioneering space manufacturer Rocket Lab (Nasdaq: RKLB) secured a $14.49 million contract from the U.S. Space Force for a mission to enhance orbital research, while Astrobotic partners with German research institutions to pioneer 3D printing on the Moon using lunar resources. Both set for launch within the next two years, these initiatives mark significant strides in off-Earth developments, encapsulating the advances and collaborative spirit driving this new era of space exploration.

Rocket Lab’s Strategic Leap

A prominent player in the space arena, Rocket Lab has been tasked by the U.S. Space Force—the space warfare branch of the U.S. Armed Forces—with a pivotal mission, the Space Test Program-30 (STP-S30). This mission is designed to boost the U.S. Department of Defense‘s (DoD) space operations by launching DISKSat, a specially designed disk-shaped satellite. It will test sustained flight in very low Earth orbit (VLEO), an area closer to Earth that allows for clearer, more detailed observations. The mission also focuses on enhancing the satellite’s ability to remain active and stable in this challenging orbit for longer periods, which is crucial for continuous data collection and operations.

Scheduled to launch from Launch Complex 2 at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia sometime in the first half of 2026, the STP-S30 mission is a key part of the Orbital Services Program-4 (OSP-4), which is aimed at launching important missions into space. This program is managed by the Space Systems Command, a Space Force group dedicated to ensuring the country can always access and operate in space effectively. Rocket Lab states this mission will help improve how we use and understand space, supporting broader defense and research efforts.

The DISKSat will be deployed on a dedicated mission aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron spacecraft, a lightweight and efficient vehicle designed to deliver small satellites into space. Electron is renowned for its precision and reliability, having successfully launched over 40 missions across multiple orbits.

“Flexible, responsive, and reliable launch is critical to ensuring resilient space capabilities for the nation, and we’re proud to deliver it to the Space Force once again with Electron,” said Rocket Lab Founder and CEO Peter Beck. “After more than 40 successful launches from pads spanning both hemispheres, we’ve delivered time and time again for DoD, national security, and commercial space users alike, cementing Electron’s position as the leading small launch solution globally. We’re excited to demonstrate this unique combination of mature, proven execution, speed, and agility for STP-S30.”

Electron at Launch Complex 2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport within NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Image courtesy of Austin Adams.

More Possibilities in Lunar Construction

Astrobotic is collaborating with Laser Zentrum Hannover (LZH), a leading German research institute specializing in laser technologies, and the Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Technical University of Berlin (TU Berlin) to establish 3D printing capabilities on the Moon. Like many others, this project, dubbed MOONRISE, plans to use lunar regolith to create infrastructure directly on the lunar surface.

Set to take place in late 2026, the mission will equip Astrobotic’s lunar lander, Griffin, with a specialized laser system to melt regolith and then use it to form structures on the Moon’s surface. A camera will capture the process, enabling researchers on Earth to analyze it through an intelligent image processing system guided by artificial intelligence (AI) to assess the process, find a suitable location on the lunar surface for laser melting, and enable quality control of the printed structures.

“The MOONRISE team is testing a key technology for future activity on the Moon, and we are grateful to be competitively selected for the delivery of their payload. MOONRISE is a great example of the kinds of new ideas, new science demonstrations, and new countries that can make use of our lander delivery services to advance their own planned contributions to the burgeoning lunar economy,” said Dan Hendrickson, Vice President of Business Development for Astrobotic.

In the MOONRISE project, scientists are researching how we can use lasers to 3D print structures with lunar regolith on the Moon dust. Image courtesy of LZH.

A lunar logistics company, Astrobotic, was created to provide end-to-end delivery services for commercial and scientific purposes for payloads to the Moon. In this experiment, LZH and TU Berlin researchers aim to provide proof that laser melting is viable on the Moon. The goal is to explore how we can use lasers and 3D printing in the future to create landing sites, roads, or buildings from lunar dust.

Otherwise, transporting materials from the Earth to the Moon is quite expensive, with prices of up to one million dollars per kilogram. However, this is not the first time the potential of 3D printing with lunar regolith has been explored. In-situ resource utilization (ISRU)—using materials found on the Moon itself—has become a key focus in space 3D printing. Several public organizations, research institutes, and companies have been investigating this powerful combination to avoid the high costs of transporting materials and machinery off-Earth. Moreover, this approach is crucial for developing the infrastructure necessary for human living on the Moon since it is a sustainable and cost-effective solution.

The project, funded by the German Space Agency at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) with €4.75 million from the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Action, is gearing up for its lunar mission in two years. Meanwhile, LZH continues its research on Earth in collaboration with project partner TU Berlin, focusing on optimizing the laser melting process. Researchers are experimenting with synthetic regolith produced by TU Berlin and training the AI for lunar deployment.

The Bigger Picture

These initiatives represent a huge shift in space exploration and utilization. The potential of these missions extends beyond immediate goals, offering insights into future space system developments and the possibility of building infrastructure on the Moon. As the space sector continues to evolve, these projects highlight how important collaborative efforts are in space exploration and innovation. As these missions develop, they pave the way for a lunar and possibly interplanetary future, where innovation meets the final frontier, deep space.

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