NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program has handed out several grants for $100,000 each recently. Among these are proposals to use water to line spaceships outer walls to increase radiation shielding while using osmosis to clean the water (Water Walls), moving between moons primarily using gravity fields and no propellant (MAGNETOUR), and a plane that is shaped like a throwing star that rotates 90degrees and uses another set of wings for advanced supersonic flight. While I found all of these concepts interesting, there is also a project that plans on launching a 3D printer into outer space so that it can print out large formation objects like antenna dishes while in orbit (SpiderFab). This would allow for objects that are up to 1 kilometer across that couldn’t be launched conventionally due to the additional weight requirements on the rocket.
Most of the cost of designing objects in space is incurred in the engineering of the objects to survive the launch. Objects are routinely subjected to forces of up to and over 4G’s – or 4 times the gravity of the Earth - and this doesn’t include the shaking and vibration that is routine. This additional engineering of the objects includes additional packing and strengthening of objects to survive launch, increasing the weight of the object to the launched. Rockets also have a limited amount of space available inside the launch fairings, which limits the size of the payload to be launched. SpiderFab hopes to be able to launch a space capable 3D Printer and enough printer materials to be able to print out structures that are many times the size of what we are able to launch today even with our largest and most capable rockets. This not only includes antenna but also trusses, mounting structures, solar panels, and radiators while achieving 30x mass reductions or 10 to 100 times the size of conventionally launched structures. Structures this large could easily rival the size of Earth’s largest radio telescope, the 1,000ft Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico (shown on left).
So how will these ultra large structures benefit us in the future? Planet finding and some other telescope missions would benefit greatly from having much larger antenna as well as allowing for high bandwidth communications for satellites and exploration vehicles, which would allow for more constant communication with better detail. We will have to build another Space Station in the near future, as the I.S.S. is nearing the end of it’s useful life. If we can 3D Print out all of the trusses, solar panels, and radiators then we could possibly make it twice as big while also half of the cost in less time. Just about any space vehicle or satellite could benefit from being able to launch delicate equipment from Earth to meet up with complex structural components already in orbit in space. 3D Printers can replicate the intricate shapes and detail that are needed as shown in these 3D Printed airplane structures shown on right. The only reason that this hasn’t been used in the past is because 3D Printing is a new tool in science that has yet to be applied to real world problems. We can cheaply 3D Print shoes, logos, prosthetics, guns, and drugs so we should be able to print large portions of spaceships, especially if it lowers costs and improves capabilities so dramatically that it makes a dramatic shift in our future in space for the better.