This Gearburn.com post has some interesting information about NASA’s $500,000 award to Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (TUI) and their ideas about how to construct objects in space using a robotic technology they’re calling “SpiderFab.” Specifically, NASA is expecting TUI to build a large multi-armed robot that looks a lot like a big white spider to extrude building materials (basically 3D print them), and then use them to build huge objects in space. And by huge, we’ll be using Gearburn’s own information which says the object might be as long as a 1/2 mile.
The process is an attempt to build big structures, like antenna booms or solar panel supports almost from scratch. According to TUI, the SpiderFab not only can build new structures that are quite intricate, it can also attach new construction to existing satellite structures. The SpiderFab basically can use an on-board “spinneret” to extrude a carbon fiber or fancy polymer to a specified length. The robot spider then would move the newly created rod into place and then use a kind of 3D printer to build a joint to connect it with another rod. Which sounds very complicated, so why do it?
It has to do with, at least according to TUI, getting more with less money. They suggest, in their NAIC 2013 Spring Meeting presentation, that using SpiderFab to build a big 100 meter antenna would cost less than half about what it current costs to send an Earth-built antenna into space. The cost of the SpiderFab’s work? Around $200 million.
Something like SpiderFab also could build bigger structures than those that currently can be sent up into space on a rocket. Their 100 meter in diameter antenna seems to be more than twice as big as the current antennas that can be loaded onto a satellite.
This seems like a very neat and useful technology–except it almost seems like someone else has hopped on the 3D printer bandwagon. I have nothing against 3D printers. I am very hopeful they will develop into more than niche and expensive machines. I think they will, and the current “boom” is fun to watch. But this technology is still evolving and that may be a real issue TUI has to contend with: the technology might not be ready for this sort of thing just yet. At least not a unit that is ready to work in a reliable and consistent manner, which is what NASA and other space-focused agencies would want.
It doesn’t mean they won’t succeed, though. In the meantime, maybe one of TUI’s employees plays guitar?