Better ways to assemble machines in space

A constructed image of an in-space-manufactured telescope designed to photograph other planets (Photo: Tethers Unlimited)

A constructed image of a telescope manufactured in space (Photo: Tethers Unlimited)

The words “off-world manufacturing” rarely, if ever, enter our daily vocabulary. That’s not the case for Dr. Robert Hoyt, a physicist and engineer working on making space travel cheaper and more efficient. One of his latest projects — the Spider Fab Bot– is designed to make it easier to manufacture items in space. Someday, he hopes, a robot could build a telescope — or a spacecraft — in space.

At TEDxSnoIsleLibraries, Hoyt explains that engineers face two major hurdles when designing space technology — one, everything must survive lift-off and, two, fit within a tiny spaceship cabin. “We cram a technical work of art into a rocket and then shake the heck out of it getting it up into orbit,” he says.

Imagine if we could instead manufacture space technology “off-world,” or in space, he says. This way, large technology would not have to be rocketed into space, saving teams’ money and opening room in the cabin — and engineers would have more room to experiment.

Hoyt and his team are currently designing a 3D printer that can operate in space. Their inspiration? Spiders. “Consider the spider and how the spider builds her home,” he says. “Does a spider build her web down on the ground and then toss it up into the trees? No, the spider is much smarter than that. She first climbs up into the trees, up to her operational altitude, and then she uses her spinnerets to 3D print her home.”

The robot would be launched with a small package of raw materials and assembly instructions — plans for a telescope or a spacecraft. In a sense, it’s like sending an assembled IKEA bookcase rather than a giant piece of furniture into space, he says.

A constructed image of a 3D printer that operates like a spider and constructs  in space (Photo: TUI)

A constructed image of the spider fab bot (Photo: Tethers Unlimited)

And, ideally, manufacturing space robots could add to its arsenal of materials by recycling items already in space. Hoyt’s team is working on a machine that could enable “astronauts on the Space Station, and hopefully, eventually, Mars missions, to take plastic waste such as Ziploc bags or packing material and melt it down and turn it into 3D printer filament, and then use that 3D printer filament to manufacture satellite components or tools and replacement parts they need to keep their spacecraft functioning.”

Hoyt notes how much larger and more intricate space technology could be if it didn’t have to undergo the stress of earth to space travel. “We could create the mother of all telescopes,” he says. “It could be the size of a football field, able to snap pictures of planets orbiting other suns …We could build fleets of small satellites able to beam Wi-Fi directly to your cell phone anywhere on earth.” He even proposes the idea of factories in space, or, “orbital shipyards.”

With the right materials and off-world technology, the size of our spacecrafts could be limitless, Hoyt says. It may not be long until “off-world manufacturing” and “orbital shipyards” enter our lexicon, and perhaps it won’t be much longer until off-world living enters the realm of possibility.

To learn more, watch Hoyt’s entire talk below:

Leave a Reply

Your email address and name are required fields marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>