14 Sep 2012

 akA new spin on 3D printing technology could have spacecraft building themselves by taking materials from space junk or asteroids.  The "SpiderFab" project has received $100,000 from NASA's innovative Advanced Concepts program to determine the feasibility of such a self-construction design.  With some planning and more funding they hope to launch a 3D-printing test mission within several years.

One extreme concept that could become reality one day is a spacecraft entirely constructed from 3D printing.  Robert Hoyt, CEO and chief scientist at Tethers Unlimited Inc says:

We'd like someday to be able to have a spacecraft create itself entirely from scratch, but realistically that's quite a ways out, that's still science fiction.

The more practical use of 3D printing in space would come on a smaller scale with things like space antennas and space telescope parts.  3D printing offers an easier method due to the fact it is easier to build these components which could be 10 to 20 times larger than today's counterparts without the need to fold and squeeze them into a rocket.  This technology may also cut space mission costs and provide much lighter and larger structures in space.  Space manufacturing avoids the need for heavier components that can't hold up to Earth's gravity but ones that are better able to survive the effects of rocket launches.  According to Hoyt:

The system could then morph in orbit into a very large system a dozen or hundreds of meters in size, it would be like launching a CubeSat that creates a 50 meter-length boom.

Cubesats are comparable to that of a loaf of bread, while 50 meters or 164 feet is more like that of a track and field event.

The possibilities with this self-building technology would allow for space telescopes the size of ARICEBO in Puerto Rico.  Or even more intriguing, such technology can be sent to distant star systems and then build arrays and communications transmitters to send signals back to Earth.

Either way, such technology will rely on robotic arm technology.  This robotic arm technology is being refined to work better with 3D printing technology.

The Take Home

Some science fiction fans may immediately think of building a Dysons Sphere and replicator technology from Star Trek when they think of 3D printing in space.  This technology being envisioned right now is more simplified but it's long term use in space could become priceless in time.  The construction possibilities such as building giant space telescopes are some of the most interesting possibilities and all done at a fraction of the cost of current technology to lift such materials into space.  Other ideas could be utilizing 3D printing technology on Mars and using it to construct structures for future human explorers before they even arrive.  We may even see this technology being used for future Asteroid mining missions as well.  3D space printing (aka: space replication) could also be another situation where science fiction influences and eventually becomes science fact.  For now its all in the planning stages, but look for this technology to become more mainstream in the years to come.

Source:  Space.com

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