One Technology that Will Commercialize Space Exploration

By Patrick Copeland, The Daily Reckoning Oct 15, 2013, 6:22 PM 

A recently discovered species of spider known as the Darwin’s bark spider spins enormous webs that cross entire rivers in Madagascar, the only place we know of that this rare species exists.

At widths of more than 80 feet, these spider webs are the largest and some of the strongest ever discovered, which is pretty cool.

But not as cool as what I’m about to share with you.

We’ve talked before about how much it costs to get things into space.

And the reason it keeps coming up is because that cost is one of the determining factors when it comes down to deciding what projects will move forward and what projects will be nudged gently into the realm of “maybe someday.” (Where are you, space elevator?)

Since this is such a gigantic hurdle, there are naturally a lot of brilliant people out there looking for solutions to this problem. One of the more clever (and obvious) fixes is to simply stop sending so much stuff to space.

NASA is preparing to launch a toaster-sized 3-D printer into space in 2014.

Let me explain:

When we talk about sending things like satellites into space, there are a lot of factors that have to be considered, but two in particular that I want to talk about today.

Number one is volume, as in how much space the object takes up. For obvious reasons, there is a limit to the amount of volume we can send in a single trip, since our current delivery vehicles have a pre-defined carrying capacity.

That means that if we want to build anything of significant size, we would have to make multiple trips to get everything into space, where it would all be assembled into one large structure.

And more trips equals more money.

On the other side, we need to consider mass. In very simple terms, the more mass we want to transport, the more expensive it is, since “heavier” objects will require more energy and more money to be propelled into orbit.

Because our current system requires us to build satellites on the ground and then launch them into space, they HAVE to be built with more mass in order to survive the trip. But once they’ve reached their destination, all that extra “stuff” we put into them and paid to launch is wasted.

So what are the solutions?

Well, we want to skip the Earthside construction altogether and just build as much stuff as possible in space.

At least that’s the solution proposed by Tethers Unlimited.

They’re currently developing a system called SpiderFab, a robotic 3-D printing and assembly system that could build structures larger than half a mile wide in orbit.

Source: Tethers Unlimited

Even though this idea is great, there are some significant hurdles that need to be overcome in order for it to become reality.

For one, machines tend to operate a little differently in zero gravity than on Earth. That means this device will have to be designed very precisely with special attention to the placement of gears, pulleys, etc.

This issue isn’t as large a problem, especially since NASA is preparing to launch a toaster-sized 3-D printer into space in 2014. The plan is for this printer to operate within the confines of the International Space Station and serve as a miniature factory with infinite design capabilities.

Possibly more difficult are the temperatures in space, which can fluctuate rapidly and would wreak havoc on the electrical and mechanical component of an ordinary machine. So it will be a challenge to build a 3-D printer that either tolerates those fluctuations well enough to continue functioning or is immune to them.

All that being said, CEO and chief scientist Robert Hoyt believes the technology is progressing quickly enough that he will be able to demonstrate its viability within the next two or three years. And if the company can secure the funding it needs, he claims they will have the ability to construct entire space crafts in orbit within the next decade or two.

In NASA labs right now, small satellites are being printed that will be able to fly from the International Space Station and transmit data — not to mention replacement parts and rocket pieces designed to survive extreme temperatures — back to Earth.

Now, if this technology becomes a reality (and I hope it does) the implications of a 3-D printer capable of operating in the vacuum of open space are extraordinary.

Aside from building solar arrays and communications platforms that measure in kilometers, instead of meters, there are countless other applications for a technology like this…

Imagine if you could send these printers to the moon or to Mars. They could be programmed to build livable structures that would be waiting when astronauts arrived. And after a base on the planet is established, they could be used to monitor and maintain the integrity of those bases.

And if a spacecraft wasn’t reliant on Earth for fuel or materials, it could travel farther than man has ever reached before, building communication outposts, parts and even more spacecraft as it goes. Which means that our reach into the stars would be more or less infinite.

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