Spiderlike Robots Could Build Giant Space Structures

Tethers Unlimited is developing an in-space manufacturing system called "SpiderFab," which would use arachnidlike robots to make large objects in orbit or beyond. SpiderFab could help build big antennas, spacecraft, and solar arrays in the next decade or so, said Rob Hoyt, CEO and chief scientist of Tethers Unlimited.
But he has an even grander vision for the technology (and associated projects the company is working on) over the long haul: "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," Hoyt said March 4 during a presentation with NASA’s Future In-Space Operations (FISO) working group.
Hoyt believes that the current model of spacecraft manufacturing, in which everything is built and assembled on the ground, and is then launched in one piece, leaves plenty of room for improvement.
"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 is an effort to decrease costs and increase efficiencies. The idea calls for launching raw materials, such as carbon fiber, to orbit. There, robots would transform these materials into truss substructures, and then assemble and integrate these pieces into larger systems.
The potential benefits of such an approach are substantial, Hoyt said. "The primary one will be that we can deploy apertures and baselines that are much larger than we can currently fit into launch shrouds," he said. "The payoff of that will be higher power, higher resolution, higher sensitivity and higher bandwidth for a wide range of NASA, DoD [Department of Defense] and commercial space missions."
Furthermore, objects built in space can be sleeker and simpler than ones launched from the ground, since they don’t need to survive the rigors of launch. That should lead to reductions in design complexity and system mass, which could lead to significant cost savings, Hoyt added.