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If you want to send a large piece of a spacecraft into orbit that can later be assembled into a larger product in space, it is common practice to build it on Earth and design it to fold up so it can fit into a rocket.
For the past year, NASA has been working with Tethers Unlimited, a space technology development company based out of Bothell, Wash., to find a better way. The space agency just awarded Tethers Unlimited an additional $500,000 to continue developing SpiderFab, a robotic 3D printing and assembly system that could build structures larger than half a mile wide in orbit.
Instead of specially engineering spacecraft components to fit into a rocket, NASA could densely pack materials like fiber and polymer into existing spacecraft and create the components while orbiting the planet. This cuts down on cost and opens up the possibility for larger spacecraft.
“Once on-orbit, the SpiderFab robotic fabrication systems will process the material to create extremely large structures that are optimized for the space environment,” Tethers Unlimited CEO and chief scientist Rob Hoyt said in a release. “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.”
Tethers Unlimited will use the money to develop ways to build support structures and parts like antennas. It is also working on ways to build large solar arrays in orbit.
“Once we’ve demonstrated that it works, we will be well on our way towards creating football-field sized antennas and telescopes to help search for Earth-like exoplanets and evidence of extraterrestrial life,” Hoyt said.