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SpaceFab: 3D printing and robotic assembly in space


September 2, 2013

SpiderFab construction of starshade (Photo: TUI)

SpiderFab construction of starshade (Photo: TUI)

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SpiderFab, a series of technologies under development by Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (TUI), combines 3D printing and robotic assembly to build and create spaceship components and structures in orbit. The groundbreaking systems are being designed to enable on-orbit construction of antennas, booms, solar arrays, trusses and other multifunctional components, ten to hundreds of times larger than currently possible with existing technology.

TUI has recently received an additional US$500,000 phase 2 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) contract, supplementing an initial $100,000 phase 1 contract awarded in August 2012 to develop the new technology.

The ability to fabricate and integrate large components in space such as “kilometer-scale antenna” and massive solar arrays should enhance NASA’s ability to acquire and distribute higher resolution data using wider bandwidth with greater signal to noise ratios and at a much reduced life-cycle cost. Additionally, by reducing packing size and mass, NASA will be able to use smaller and less costly launch vehicles to deploy systems vastly bigger than present capabilities allow.

Currently, large space-bound components are manufactured in situ and then folded within a rocket shroud to deploy when orbit is reached. This approach can be expensive and, clearly, the component size is limited to the space available within the shroud.

“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,” says Rob Hoyt, TUI’s CEO and Chief Scientist. “Once on-orbit, the SpiderFab robotic fabrication systems will process the material to create extremely large structures that are optimized for the space environment.” The TUI space fabrication technologies will also create systems that are both repairable and re-configurable while in orbit and may even evolve to support the utilization of orbital debris and asteroid materials some time in the future.

In parallel with the NIAC funded SpiderFab research, TUI is also developing, under NASA contract, a “Trusselator” device that will fabricate truss structures to enable in-space construction of large solar arrays. “Once we've demonstrated that it works,” Hoyt advises, “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.”

If all goes according to plan, TUI will demo the new technologies out there in space before 2020. A detailed 53 page document outlining the full extent of the technology can be found on NASA’s website.

Source: Tethers Unlimited, NASA


...this can be revolutionary.

Huge solar power plant in orbit, to be practical, needed two orders of magnitude improvement in launch costs (per studies lead by Paul Werbos form NSF about a decade ago).

Let's to do the accounting:

3D manufacturing in orbit one order of magnitude (per the PDF linked)

3D manufacturing of rocket components (multiple articles here currently researched at NASA) one more order of magnitude cost reduction.

3....and, if successful, Grasshopper reusable (not just re-flyable like shuttle was) spacecraft by Space X one last order of magnitude.

This makes three orders of magnitude improvement....enough to resolve energy issues down on Earth. At three orders of magnitude down from current costs price reduction you could finally make the dreams of the High Frontier of Gerard K.O'Neill come through.

It is high time, after forty years of waiting!

Kudos also for the idea of using the orbital debris as raw material! This would kill two flies with one stone. The orbital debris is in itself a headache enough!


This is the technology that will get us to Mars and other planets. The ability to build huge spaceships and being able to pre-build habitat's prior to arrival will be a game changer.

John Findlay

Great. They'll boost our frozen heads into orbit and upload them later into a simulation space IF we have a spare hundred million lying around. Then it's off to the stars!! Woo Hoo. Meanwhile back on earth there's 7 Billion People wanting a car. What we really need is a cheap solar powered high altitude drone to spray some sulfuric acid into the stratosphere. Ach, we'll work it out somehow.

Windsor Wilder

This paper presents some of the things that can be done in space. One of which can lower the cost (financial and environmental) by orders of magnitude for getting mass into space. The Leo Archipelago: A System of Earth-Rings for Communications, Mass-Transport to Space, Solar Power, and Control of Global Warming http://arxiv.org/abs/1009.4043

SpaceFab would be an important (if not essential) part of this development. The use of tensegrities would be a natural way of producing the immense light-mass structures envisioned. http://www.iafastro.net/iac/archive/browse/IAC-11/C2/8/11690/ 2011, A Meulenberg, T Poston, Sling-on-a-Ring: Structure for an elevator to LEO, Physics Procedia 20, 222–231.

Andrew Meulenberg
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