Giant spider robots in space could change things forever

SpiderFab space image

Giant spiders in space may sound like the beginning of an epic sci-fi horror book, but the real purpose of this nightmare-come-to-life is a little less sinister. The massive arachnid in question, actually called SpiderFab, is a multi-armed robot built with the idea that it’s “limbs” will allow it to assemble large items in space to cut down on manufacturing and transport costs on earth.

According to its creators, SpiderFab would use raw materials that had been deployed into space to assemble, or in some cases create, objects that are necessary for space exploration. Each arm of the robot has a different purpose. For example, one arm would construct the smaller elements of the structure being created, and another would attach the smaller pieces to other smaller pieces by moving around on the “web.” In this case, the web is the skeleton of the object being created. According to the site, after the items are launched in an “embryonic state”, the “systems will use techniques evolved from emerging additive manufacturing and automated assembly technologies to fabricate and integrate components such as antennas, shrouds, booms, concentrators, and optics.”

SpiderFab_space image-2

These larger objects could include radio antennas, spacecraft booms, or solar arrays. At least, those are the focus at the moment. Tethers Unlimited, the company designing the spiderbots, thinks this type of design would be a huge benefit to future human space exploration and settlements since it allows for more flexibility in what’s being launched. For example, currently things launched into space have a limited size due to the very nature of the launch. You can’t build something that is too big to launch. But, if you could assemble objects in space, it opens up the possibilities for what can be created.

Trusselator image

The other challenge of current space creation is that whatever is made on earth has to be hearty enough to survive a launch into space. In fact, according to Tethers Unlimited, much of the design process is actually focused on just getting the structure to survive until it reaches space.

Rob Hoyt, CEO of chief scientist has high hopes for the spiders. For items like  the New Worlds Observer space telescope, which will use a starshade to block the light of a star, these SpiderFabs could offer a larger shade. Conventional starshades are about 203 feet wide, but if it were assembled in space that number could grow to 406 feet, which would allow for better and more flexible observation.

SpiderFab has received two rounds of funding from  NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, including one that allowed the company to build a machine that essentially 3D prints trusses from carbon-fiber spools. These trusses can be  used in booms and other space objects and the machine can create truss at about 2 inches per minute. This is the first step in the process to creating the full-on space spider as this system will allow for major structural creation.

So, maybe it’s not quite as scary as a novel, but it’s much more useful. (And also preferable to actual giant space spiders. No thank you.)


Henry Sapiecha

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