One of the biggest problems when planning space missions is the immense cost of actually launching stuff up there, and doing it safely. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has managed to significantly increase cost-effectiveness, from the $10,000 it took to put a pound of payload into space with the Space Shuttle, to a little over $800 with the Falcon Heavy rocket. Even with the prices dropping, the task of putting satellites or spacecraft with large components (like antennas or solar panels) into orbit is still quite problematic.
This is where NASA’s SpiderFab technology comes in. Developed in collaboration with aerospace company Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (TUI), these machines could change the way we build and deploy satellites and other spacecraft in orbit. Since they don’t have to be sent in one piece, it will be much easier for the components to be packed and unpacked. Space agencies will just have to launch the raw materials into orbit, where spider-like robots will do the job of assembling them.
SpiderFab takes advantage of additive manufacturing techniques (3D printing) and the latest in robotic assembly technologies, and could represent a huge step forward in the way space missions are conducted. The creation of significantly larger solar panels, antennas, and instruments with SpiderFab (we’re talking orders of magnitude larger) means a huge increase in power, resolution, and sensitivity for future spacecraft, something which could prove invaluable for both purely scientific projects like probes and telescopes, but also for exploration and colonization missions.
While spider-robots buildings telescopes and space stations in orbit is still a far away prospect, TUI is already working on the first phase of the SpiderFab project. Called the Trusselator device, it is a machine which uses 3D printing and robotic assembly techniques to build sizeable support structures for large scale solar arrays, solar sails, or antennas. For now this is as complex as things get, but in the future our biggest space missions will almost certainly be conducted using autonomous droids.