NASA turns to 3-D printing for self-building spacecraft

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Unlimited Tethers

Using 3-D printers to build spacecraft parts in orbit would offer an easier way to construct huge space antennas or space telescope components 10 or 20 times larger than today’s counterparts without having to fold them up and squeeze them inside a rocket.

Spacecraft could build themselves or huge space telescopes someday by
scavenging materials from space junk or asteroids. That wild vision
stems from a modest proposal to use 3-D printing technology aboard a tiny
satellite to create a much larger structure in space.

The “SpiderFab” project received $100,000 from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts
program to hammer out a design and figure out whether spacecraft
self-construction makes business sense. Practical planning and
additional funding could lead to the launch of a 3-D-printing test
mission within several years.

“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.”

Using 3-D printers to build spacecraft parts in orbit would offer an
easier way to construct huge space antennas or space telescope
components 10 or 20 times larger than today’s counterparts without
having to fold them up and squeeze them inside a rocket — missions could
simply launch with the 3-D printers and raw materials. [NASA Looks to 3D Printing for Spare Space-Station Parts]

The idea could also cut space mission costs and boost mission
capabilities by making much lighter and larger structures in space, Hoyt
explained. That’s because space manufacturing avoids the need to make
heavier spacecraft components that can not only stand up to Earth’s
gravity, but can also survive the shaking and acceleration of rocket
launches.

“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.”

(Cubesats have a size comparable to a loaf of bread, whereas 50 meters
(164 feet) is equivalent to the length of a track and field event.)

Hoyt even envisions the space manufacturing technology building space
telescopes the size of ARICEBO — a 1,000-foot telescope
radio telescope in Puerto Rico. Or the technology could allow space
probes to visit distant star systems and begin building sensor arrays
and communications transmitters to send signals back to Earth.

The technology might even build upon DARPA’s Phoenix idea
of scavenging parts from old or broken spacecraft to build a new
Frankenstein satellite, except that the space manufacturing could break
down both spacecraft parts and materials from asteroid mining.

That futuristic vision will require a more intricate, automated cooperation between robot arms and 3-D printing technology.

“We’re also working on robot arm systems, so we’re hoping at some point
to combine that project with our SpiderFab project,” Hoyt said.

You can follow InnovationNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @ScienceHsu. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 InnovationNewsDaily, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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