The United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration has recently awarded a grant of half a million dollars to Tethers Unlimited. The grant was given to encourage the development of an orbiting mechanical spider capable of 3-dimensional printing on a grand scale. From the Tethers Unlimited Website:
TUI is developing an architecture and a suite of technologies for automated on-orbit construction of very large structures and multifunctional space system components, such as kilometer-scale antenna reflectors. This process will enable space systems to be launched in a compact and durable ‘embryonic’ state.
The development of these sorts of technologies allows for a new method of building in space. Tethers has taken the recent 3D printing technology to the next level. The idea is to send the printer to space and then send the “ink” instead of launching a gigantic rocket filled with a project already printed, stapled, collated, and spiral bound.
Wonky analogies aside, this robotics seem strikingly similar to nano technologies. Instead of pushing around platelets in the blood stream, these extraterrestrial spiders will be manufacturing gigantic solar panels, antennae, and other orbiting satellites.Related Article: 3D Printing: The Next Revolution in Creativity
Once on orbit, these systems will use techniques evolved from emerging additive manufacturing and automated assembly technologies to fabricate and integrate components such as antennas, shrouds, booms, concentrators, and optics.
The primary benefit of this on-orbit fabrication capability will be order-of-magnitude improvements in packing efficiency and system mass, which will enable NASA to use small, low-cost launch vehicles to deploy systems dramatically larger than possible with current state-of-the-art technologies.
Right now NASA pays approximately $10,000 to put just one pound into orbit. One single pound. According to the CDC, the average human weighs about 195 pounds. With some quick math we can see that it costs about $1,950,000 to send a person into orbit. Not to mention that this math is the simple math. It is no medium sized wonder that NASA is investing in technologies such as the Space Spider.
The net payoff will be to enable NASA to acquire and distribute a variety of forms of data at higher resolution, higher bandwidth, higher signal-to-noise, and lower life-cycle cost.
The future for NASA seems to be rich with this sort of innovation. With plans as grandiose as settlements on mars, NASA is upping the technological ante. I really hope that they finance a company whose sole mission is to make Thunder Cats a reality.Related Article: Mars, The First Frontier?!