The futuristic new system – dubbed SpiderFab – is being developed by a company called Tethers Unlimited.
The system uses arachnid-like droids to construct large objects in orbit around the Earth or further into the Solar System.
Our really long-term objective… is to eventually enable the use of in-situ resources to construct the infrastructure in space needed to support humanity’s expansion throughout the solar system
Dr. Robert Hoyt
Tethers Unlimited CEO and chief scientist Dr. Robert Hoyt believes the SpiderFab system could be used to build radio antennas, spacecraft booms and solar arrays within the next decade.
But Dr. Hoyt also sees the robotic spiders helping humanity toward a long-term goal – sustaining mankind as it travels across the universe.
“Our really long-term objective for all of this work is to eventually enable the use of in-situ resources to construct the infrastructure in space needed to support humanity’s expansion throughout the solar system,” Dr. Hoyt claimed last month, during a presentation with NASA’s Future In-Space Operations (FISO) working group.
Dr. Hoyt believes the current method of manufacturing a spacecraft – assembling everything on Earth and then launching the finished product in one piece – is unnecessarily wasteful.
“It’s a very expensive and time-consuming process, and also, the size of systems is somewhat limited by the size of the deployables that are possible to fold up and fit within a launch shroud,” he said.
SpiderFab could cut construction costs by only launching raw materials – such as carbon fibre – into orbit.
The robot spiders will transform raw materials into the construction pieces needed for the build TETHERS UNLIMITED
The robot spiders will transform raw materials into the construction pieces needed for the build
The limbs are used to piece together the materials and will also allow the droid to grip the structure TETHERS UNLIMITED
Limbs are used to piece together the materials and will also allow the droid to grip the structure
“The primary [advantage] will be that we can deploy apertures and baselines that are much larger than we can currently fit into launch shrouds,” Dr. Hoyt added.
“The payoff of that will be higher power, higher resolution, higher sensitivity and higher bandwidth for a wide range of NASA, DoD [Department of Defence] and commercial space missions.”
Crafts built entirely in space have the potential to be sleeker and simpler than current designs – as they do not have to survive the trauma of launch.
This would lead to further cost savings, Dr. Hoyt has predicted.
At the heart of Hoyt’s ambitious project are the space spiders – a multi-armed robot capable of making many of the structural elements needed for the build, like an eight legged 3D printer.
Once the piece has been produced by its spinneret, the spider can piece together the structural elements using its metal limbs.
“Under the NIAC and SBIR work (NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research) I think we’ve already validated the basic feasibility of the key processes required” for the SpiderFab concept, Dr. Hoyt said.
Tethers Unlimited hopes to launch its first working construction robot into space within the next couple of years.
“In a perfect world — if funding flowed and the contracting process didn’t drag on forever — we think we could get to be able to build very large support structures for antennas and solar arrays, and those sorts of components, in the early 2020s,” Dr. Hoyt added.