SpiderFab: NASA Turns to 3D Printing for Future Space Expeditions

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NASA Space 3D Printing

Astronauts have always had limited carry-on storage. Even some of the most valuable scientific equipment can be restricted from flight because of constraints in the design of a space shuttle.

NASA has green lit a new project called SpiderFab that will enable the manufacturing of spaceship parts and other equipment in flight. How? By integrating 3D printing into the space program.

From Iowa State Daily:

NASA’s project entitled “SpiderFab” proposes the use of 3D printer technology on future missions allowing for the possibility of a spaceship to self-assemble parts in orbit. The project is funded by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program with a $100,000 grant. This new initiative opens the door to potentially lower costs and the ability to launch 3D printers with the materials needed for ship construction in outer space. Current spacecraft are designed to fold and fit all necessary components into a compact area within the craft, while also having to withstand the high energy forces of launch and the ascent into space.

“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.” “The system could then morph in orbit into a very large system a dozen or hundreds of meters in size,” Hoyt told InnovationNewsDaily. “It would be like launching a CubeSat that creates a 50 meter-length boom.” (Space.com)

Here is the description of SpiderFab from the NASA site:

We propose to develop a process for automated on-orbit construction of very large structures and multifunctional components. The foundation of this process is a novel additive manufacturing technique called ‘SpiderFab’, which combines the techniques of fused deposition modeling (FDM) with methods derived from automated composite layup to enable rapid construction of very large, very high-strength-per-mass, lattice-like structures combining both compressive and tensile elements. This technique can integrate both high-strength structural materials and conducting materials to enable construction of multifunctional space system components such as antennas. The SpiderFab technique enables the constituent materials for a space structure to be launched in an extremely compact form, approaching perfect packing efficiencies, and processed on-orbit to form structures optimized for the micro-gee space environment, rather than launch environments. The method can also create structures with 2nd and higher orders of hierarchy, such as a ‘truss-of-trusses’, achieving 30X mass reductions over the 1st order hierarchy structures used in most space applications. This approach can therefore enable deployment of antenna reflectors, phased array antennas, solar panels, and radiators with characteristic sizes one to two orders of magnitude larger than current state-of-the-art deployable-structure technologies can fit within available launch shrouds.

The SpiderFab process for on-orbit construction of large, lightweight structures will dramatically reduce the launch mass and stowed volume of NASA systems for astronomy, Earth-observation, and other missions requiring large apertures or large baselines, enabling them to be deployed using much smaller, less expensive launch vehicles and thereby reducing total life cycle cost for these missions. Potential applications include construction of 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. The proposed space system fabrication technologies will also enable these systems to be re-configurable and repairable on orbit, and can evolve to support ISRU of orbital debris in Earth orbit and asteroid materials in deep space exploration missions.


NASA photo by Luke Bryant used under Creative Commons license.

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One Response to SpiderFab: NASA Turns to 3D Printing for Future Space Expeditions

  1. [...] has commissioned a company to build a 3D printer that can go into space. We reported about SpiderFab back in September [...]

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