3D printing is currently getting a ton of media attention and is one of the coolest technologies we've developed recently. The technology promises a ton of cool things. For NASA's purposes, the general idea is to print massive structures in lower orbit that are unaffected by the "getting them in orbit" problems that currently haunt us. Structures printed in orbit could be designed for life in orbit, which would eliminate the engineering requirements of designing a spacecraft to survive launch and sizing a satellite in such a way so it fits on top of a rocket. Structures printed in space also promise to be much cheaper.
Tethers Unlimited (TUI) chief scientist, Dr. Rob Hoyt, said in a press release, "On-orbit fabrication allows the material for these critical components to be launched in a very compact and durable form, such as spools of fiber or blocks of polymer, so they can fit into a smaller, less expensive launch vehicle. Once on-orbit, the SpiderFab robotic fabrication systems will process the material to create extremely large structures that are optimized for the space environment. Currently spacecraft components are designed to be built on the ground and folded up to fit inside a rocket shroud. The process is complicated, expensive and limited by the availability and size of existing rockets. This radically different approach to building space systems will enable us to create antennas and arrays that are tens-to-hundreds of times larger than are possible now, providing higher power, higher bandwidth, higher resolution, and higher sensitivity for a wide range of space missions."
TUI and its SpiderFab technology move into phase 2 with NASA's backing as they continue to develop the technologies needed to achieve this audacious goal. When perfected, SpiderFab (and similar technologies) have the potential to produce antennas, solar arrays, and other in-orbit devices up to ten times larger than those we can currently put in orbit. This ability could increase the type of power and sensitivity of our in-orbit machines by a few orders of magnitude.
The technology has the possibility of revolutionizing science in low Earth orbit and allows us to peer further into the universe than ever before. At the same time, the ability to launch the raw material in small compact capsules, utilizing smaller launch vehicles, will help to relieve some of the financial burden intrinsic to space exploration.
It seems likely that within the next decade or so, we will be able to build kilometer-scale machines in orbit very cheaply allowing for an enormous boom in orbital science.
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