Spiderfab 3D printers creating large in-space antenna structure

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.

Written by Astro1 on August 31st, 2013 , Innovation

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    Michael McCoy commented

    As important as diversity in science is, my interest lies more in down-to-earth problems that plague the human race — right here, right now, impending and dire.
    The human race is not going anywhere — earth is our home and prison — yet we have charted a course of doom.
    Planetary exploration is obscenely expensive yet benefits mankind little. There is no habitable planet or moon within reach. At four light years distance, we are not going to our nearest star neighbor — much less any solar system dozens, hundreds or thousands of light years away.
    Yet we are killing our precious planet. Reliance on and depletion of fossil fuels, overpopulation, increasing scarceness of fresh water, rain forest destruction, moral decay, drug addiction et al.
    The rich continue to get richer, the poor, poorer.
    One third of mankind does not have access to a toilet, one quarter do not have ready access to clean water. 29,000 children die each day on earth from easily preventable diseases, lack of food and potable water.
    In the basement of the human house, a smoldering fire is becoming more and more impossible to extinguish, our roof is leaking and ready to cave in, yet we seem more concerned about the nicely trimmed lawn, fancy car in the driveway and the latest electronic gadget — and don’t forget the meaningless sporting contests, drinking the coolest beer and using the shampoo that makes us most beautiful.

    August 31, 2013 at 4:17 pm
      Astro1 commented

      We don’t need to go four light years. There is plenty of living space right in our own solar system, which can be made habitable with modern technology.

      As for the belief that the poor are getting poorer, you should read some history and find out how people lived in the past. It has been said, with justification, that the Egyptian Pharaohs would have marveled at the wonders available for sale at a Seven-Eleven. Two centuries ago, even the wealthy could not be assured of clean water or enough food to eat. At the turn of the 20th Century, city streets were filled with horse manure (and the occasional carcass of a dead horse), and the air was filled with pollution from the dust. Thousands of people died from air pollution, and horse-drawn traffic was far more dangerous than the automobiles of today. That changed because of the fancy cars and fossil fuels you disdain.

      Technology has allowed the majority of the human race to rise above the historic level of life, which was solitary, nasty, brutish, and shortage. In the future, we will continue to see improvements. The lack of perfection in modern society is no reason to turn our backs on the progress that has been made over the generations.

      September 2, 2013 at 1:24 pm
        Michael McCoy commented

        Let’s be realistic. I did not voice a disdain of fossil fuels nor did I advocate “turning our backs on progress”.
        I do, however, advocate a sensible set of priorities through meaningful perspectives.
        You say: ” … there is plenty of living space right in our own solar system, which can be made habitable with modern technology.”
        Name one — and at what cost?
        The moon and Mars are the only contenders, and maintaining human life on either is obscenely expensive, fraught with ever-present dangers and this, for a handful of inhabitants, and for what purpose?
        No other planet or moon in our solar system is even remotely suited as a platform for human habitation — not even close.
        The search for extra-solar planets capable of supporting human life is a wonderful, yet fanciful undertaking — ideal subject matter for dreamers and philosophers — but humans will not be going to any of them.
        Even with near-light speed velocities, (a nice thought but utterly ridiculous in the non-cinematic world), the shear distances, journey duration, cosmic radiation and food/water issues, there is an aspect of such a journey seldom discussed — and that is the fuel required to slow/stop/land the craft upon arrival at the destination — and them, what?
        Worm holes, solar sails and anti-matter propulsion are really cool ideas too — but — really?
        Meanwhile, the down-to-earth problems faced by human civilization continue to grow. The fragile Earth will be sustaining the lives of 9 billion humans by 2050. Racial/ethnic strife, quests for additional fossil fuels, political and corporate corruption, climate change (possibly drastic and sudden), increasing scarcity of potable water and moral decay will bring about realities that few consider — much less, anticipate, (or God forbid, work to correct). All this and possibly more, if we don’t blow ourselves up.
        The real problems with human existence are here, on Earth, and now, in the present. We’ve made our bed, and it’s the only one we have.

        April 22, 2015 at 11:49 am
          Astro1 commented

          The Moon and Mars are not the only options (and possibly not even the best). Free-space habitats have many advantages, as Professor Gerard O’Neill showed in his book, The High Frontier, 40 years ago.

          Fossil fuels, far from being “depleted,” are becoming more abundant. Have you compared gas prices today and those from a couple years ago?

          “Sensible” priorities need to be based on science, not ideology.

          April 22, 2015 at 12:20 pm