NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program has selected a company called Tethers Unlimited to fabricate multifunctional spacecraft structures in orbit.
Currently, launching mass of space systems into space requires high engineering cost - you need to make sure all physically large components to be designed to stow for launch and then reliably deploy on orbit. And, to ensure all things fit inside the rocket there's a limit on sizes of parts.
Tethers Unlimited is going to develop a process for automated on-orbit construction of very large structures and multifunctional components.
This process is called 'SpiderFab' which uses automated processes and fused-deposition modeling to manufacture "very large, very high-strength-per-mass, lattice-like structures combining both compressive and tensile elements. "
(Click to enlarge, credit: NASA)
Tethers Unlimited received $100,000 from NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program to select the best process/material combination with the best weight, complexity, strength, and radiative performance for SpiderFab technique. The idea is to launch the raw materials for a space structure in an extremely compact form and then use 3D printers to build spacecraft components in orbit.
This project could be used to build ""multiple high-gain antennas in Earth and solar orbit to support a deep-space communications network, long-baseline interferometry systems for terrestrial planet finder programs, and submillimeter astronomy of cosmic structure."
These structures can be 10 or 20 times larger and lighter than what we today can send out to the space, because space manufacturing could avoid the need to build heavy spacecraft components that can survive from the gravity and the shaking and acceleration of rocket launches.
According to Space.com, this technology might even harvest parts from old or broken spacecraft to build a new, working satellite.
"We'd like someday to be able to have a spacecraft create itself entirely from scratch, but realistically that's quite a ways out," said Robert Hoyt, CEO and chief scientist of Tethers Unlimited Inc. "That's still science fiction."
Posted in 3D Printing Applications
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