Spiderfab will use 3D printing and robotics to build a lot bigger, lighter and cheaper in space

Tethers Unlimited is currently developing a revolutionary suite of technologies called “SpiderFab” to enable on-orbit fabrication ofof large spacecraft components such as antennas, solar panels, trusses, and other multifunctional structures. SpiderFab provides order-of-magnitude packing- and mass- efficiency improvements over current deployable structures and enables construction of kilometer-scale apertures within current launch vehicle capabilities, providing higher-resolution data at lower life-cycle cost.

They have received a $500,000 phase 2 NASA NIAC contract, which follows a $100,000 phase 1 contract to develop the technology.

Here is information from the Tethers Unlimited website and from their NASA NIAC presentation.

Vision: Create a ‘Satellite Chrysalis’, consisting of raw material in a compact, durable state, ‘Software DNA’ assembly instructions, and the capability to fabricate and integrate components on orbit to form an operational space system.

Additive Manufacturing and Assembly On-Orbit

Challenge Addressed: Currently, a significant fraction of the engineering cost and launch mass of space systems is required exclusively to enable the system to survive launch. This is particularly true for systems with physically large components, such as antennas, booms, and panels, which must be designed to stow for launch and then reliably deploy on orbit. Furthermore, the sizes of apertures and spacecraft structures are limited by the requirement to stow them within available launch fairings. Deployable structures and inflatable/rigidizable components have enabled construction of systems with scales of several dozen meters, but their packing efficiency is not sufficient to enable scaling within available launch shrouds to the kilometer-size baselines desired for applications such as long-baseline interferometry and sparse aperture sensing.

Technology: TUI is developing an architecture and a suite of technologies for automated on-orbit construction of very large structures and multifunctional space system components, such as kilometer-scale antenna reflectors. This process will enable space systems to be launched in a compact and durable ‘embryonic’ state. Once on orbit, these systems will use techniques evolved from emerging additive manufacturing and automated assembly technologies to fabricate and integrate components such as antennas, shrouds, booms, concentrators, and optics. The primary benefit of this on-orbit fabrication capability will be order-of-magnitude improvements in packing efficiency and system mass, which will enable NASA to use small, low-cost launch vehicles to deploy systems dramatically larger than possible with current state-of-the-art technologies. The net payoff will be to enable NASA to acquire and distribute a variety of forms of data at higher resolution, higher bandwidth, higher signal-to-noise, and lower life-cycle cost.

The Trusselator Effort: Under a NASA/LaRC Phase I SBIR contract, TUI is currently implementing the first step in the SpiderFab architecture: a machine that uses 3D printing techniques and robotic assembly to fabricate long, high-performance truss structures. This “Trusselator” device will enable construction of large support structures for systems such as multi-hundred-kilowat solar arrays, large solar sails, and football-field sized antennas.

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