NASA has been working with Tethers Unlimited to develop SpiderFab, a robotic 3D printing and assembly system that could fabricate components in space. The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program recently awarded Tethers Unlimited $500,000 to continue developing the technologies.
SpiderFab adapts additive manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing and robotic assembly technologies to enable space systems to fabricate and integrate large components such as antennas, solar arrays, sensor masts, and shrouds in orbit.
Spacecraft components are currently built on the ground, which is expensive and limits their size. Dr. Rob Hoyt, Tethers Unlimited’s CEO and chief scientist, said:
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.