Space exploration has always been restricted by the fact that all technology is to-go. Everything we put into the great beyond must first be fabricated on Earth and then packed into a rocket shroud and delivered—at great expense. The heavier the cargo, the larger and more costly the rocket, and thus, the launch.
But what if we could shift production off terra nostra and actually do the building on site, aka in space?
SpiderFab, a new system, says we can. The suite of technologies, equipped with 3-D printing and robotic assembly, has the capability of fabricating "on-orbit" structures that are 10 times the size of current spaceship components (such as apertures, solar arrays, and shrouds). Developed by tech firm Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (TUI), the project is now in its second phase and recently landed a $500,000 NASA contract. The boost provides crucial funding to advance and test the key premises built into SpiderFab—and shows a series vote of faith in its future from the financially struggling NASA.
"SpiderFab is certainly an unconventional approach to creating space systems, and it will enable significant improvements for a wide range of missions," TUI CEO Dr. Rob Hoyt tells Co.Design.
There are two major innovations built into SpiderFab, in transportation and in manufacture. The first makes it possible to pack and launch raw materials, like spools of printable polymer, in a cost-effective way using smaller rockets. The second uses patented robotic fabrication systems—dubbed SpiderFab architecture—that will process that material and aggregate it into structural arrangements. The result, Hoyt says, allows space programs to "create dramatically larger apertures with the same launch mass."
The unorthodox project envisions a solution that had eluded Hoyt for the two decades, when he first began working with NASA. There, he'd experimented with on-orbit fabrication that by his own admission approximated the SpiderFab in concept alone.
However, this was a time before the advent of 3-D printing. But when the technology hit the mainstream, Hoyt seized upon its potential immediately. As he explains: "I didn't strike on anything dramatically better than [previous investigations] until about six years ago, when additive manufacturing was really starting to take off. I realized that those techniques could be evolved to enable some dramatic improvements in what we can build in space."
At present, TUI is working on building out iterations for SpiderFab architecture. The first of these is the Trusselator, one of what will be many building blocks that form a factory for producing spacecraft components. The Trusselator is designed to print high-performance truss elements, while another, the Spinneret, will use 3-D printing-like techniques to connect and fuse together clusters of trusses.
Hoyt says that the TUI team will be further testing these processes in the next couple of months, first in the lab and then in a thermal-vacuum chamber. He hopes, however, that they will be able to conduct an on-orbit demonstration of SpiderFab a few years down the line.