Tethers Unlimited has received a $500,000 Phase II award from the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts to continue work on Spiderfab, a system for 3D printing large structures in space. The Bothell, Washington-based company began work on Spiderfab under a $100,000 NIAC Phase I award last year.
“As NASA begins a new chapter in exploration, we’re investing in these seed-corn advanced concepts of next-generation technologies that will truly transform how we investigate and learn about our universe,” said Michael Gazarik, NASA associate administrator for space technology.
Spiderfab combines the techniques of fused deposition modeling (FDM) with methods derived from automated composite layup to enable rapid construction of very large, lightweight, high-strength, lattice-like structures with both compressive and tensile elements. SpiderFab would enable structures to be launched in extremely compact form as raw feedstock, which would be used to create structures optimized for the microgravity environment rather than the launch environment. The technology could also evolve to use orbital debris and extraterrestrial materials as feedstock.
Spiderfab could create structures with higher-order hierarchies, such as a truss-of-trusses, which can achieve 30-fold mass reductions compared to first-order structures. This approach could enable deployment of antenna reflectors, phased-array antennas, solar panels, and radiators 10-100 times larger than current state-of-the-art deployable structures.
Potential Spiderfab applications include 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.
Spiderfab structures would re-configurable and repairable on orbit. The technology could also evolve to use orbital debris and extraterrestrial materials as feedstock.