We know that NASA has been talking about taking 3D printing into space for a little while now, and I’ll admit that my limited mental scope only thought they’d be sending a few manufactured 3D printers up there to work on things in the International Space Station, but boy was I off. They’re currently getting involved with the Washington-based aerospace company Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (TUI) to work on a much grander project they’re calling SpiderFab, which will be an arachnid-like bot that will be capable of building massive spacecraft while orbiting Earth. Sounds pretty awesome, right? I can already see businesses getting involved so that giant floating billboards will be circling the Earth in 10 years. But this collaboration has more sincere goals.
NASA chose TUI as the winner of the Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, awarding them a $500,000 contract, which will go a long way toward getting this unique concept into space. Simply put, there’s a multi-limbed robotic spider creature that is capable of 3D printing structures on the go, such as antennas, and it can make them much larger than anything that can comfortably be rocketed into space fully constructed. Since the main components consist of the spider and the polymers needed for building, as well as the program to tell the spider what to do, of course, this makes for a far smaller payload than sending already built parts. Conservation is key when you’re burning thousands of pounds of fuel to get a successful launch. TUI’s CEO and Chief Scientist Dr. Rob Hoyt can of course explain things better than I can:
On-orbit fabrication allows the material for these critical components to be launched in a very compact and durable form, such as spools of fiber or blocks of polymer, so they can fit into a smaller, less expensive launch vehicle. Once on-orbit, the SpiderFab robotic fabrication systems will process the material to create extremely large structures that are optimized for the space environment. This radically different approach to building space systems will enable us to create antennas and arrays that are tens-to-hundreds of times larger than are possible now, providing higher power, higher bandwidth, higher resolution, and higher sensitivity for a wide range of space missions.
The first step for TUI will be to create a “Trusselator,” a device that can create frameworks for the SpiderFab to build off of. They presented as an example a “Starshade” structure that would be used to block starlight from affecting the sights of telescopes looking for exoplanets. They detail exactly how the SpiderFab would do its job and demonstrate how effective it could be. They’re keen on eventually creating structures kilometers wide, things that would be completely unfeasible to build on Earth. But without our planet’s gravity affecting things, the designs can be a little more out there.
“Once we’ve demonstrated that it [Trusselator] works, we will be well on our way towards creating football-field sized antennas and telescopes to help search for Earth-like exoplanets and evidence of extraterrestrial life.”
Sometimes in order to dream big, you have to dream small first, and TUI sounds like it’s got some great minds behind it. Dreaming about spiders gives me the willies.