Considering the difficulties of getting even relatively small spacecraft like the SpaceX Dragon into orbit, the idea of launching larger interplanetary craft from Earth's surface seems especially daunting. To address this, NASA thinks that future spacefaring vehicles could actually construct themselves after they've launched using onboard 3D printers, eventually transforming into ships much larger and more complex than anything that could ever be built on the planet.
The space agency recently awarded $100,000 to a project called SpiderFab that aims to study this concept and ultimately produce designs for such a craft. In theory, a small vehicle could launch in a rocket carrying the raw materials needed by an onboard 3D printer. Unlike fully-assembled craft, it wouldn't need to be designed to fold up or built to withstand the extreme forces involved in liftoff and ascent into space.
NASA thinks the concept could also be expanded to create a spaceship that would find its own raw materials once in space, such as metal from asteroids or even spare parts from defunct satellites. In addition to building vehicles, the technology could be used to construct massive radio telescopes and other hardware of a scale and complexity that could never be launched from Earth.
Just imagine a space station that could "print" itself, without the need for astronauts or multiple, expensive trips to bring loads of components into orbit. Or maybe just a giant space baby like the one seen in "2001: A Space Odyssey."
[Image credit: Tethers Unlimited]
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