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Robotic spiders may someday build satellites in space

Sharon Gaudin | Nov. 12, 2014
Six- or eight-legged robotic spiders, capable of working with a 3D printer, gripping large objects and welding them together, are expected to build satellites or small spacecraft in the lower Earth orbit.

"If you can fabricate them on orbit, you can launch the raw material in a much more compact form, and you can design them for the microgravity environment of space rather than the tens of Gs of launch," he said. "The combination of reduction in launch volume and mass, and the ability to make it bigger than you could possibly fold up into a rocket, means you can get an order of magnitude improvements of performance in cost."

Tethers Unlimited is focused on creating what's call a trusselator, a machine that takes spools of carbon fiber material and knits it together to build high-performance carbon fiber trusses, which can be used to build antennas or solar arrays.

So far, a prototype trusselator has been used to build a truss that was more than 52-feet long.

The 3D printers needed to build these large structures in space would look and function much differently.

"It isn't a typical 3D printer," Hoyt said. "The printers people use now are typically a big box that can make something smaller than that box. We want to have a tool that can make something much, much larger than itself. We're trying to figure out how to turn the 3D printer inside out. We need a tool that can act like a tiny spider building up a big web. And we have to figure out how to control the temperature of the materials while we're processing them — and doing this in orbit where the temperatures vary by hundreds of degrees. That's a big challenge we need to address."

A big step for the company will be to test the manufacturing platform on the International Space Station in several years.

 

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