Over the past year Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (TUI) has been working with NASA to produce satellites which can be 3D printed in space. Now, they have received funding from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to take their research one step further and create 3D printed spacecraft structures with embedded radiation shielding. Their research is being funded by a Phase II Small Business Innovation contract and the embedded radiation shielding may end up being both cheaper and more reliable than traditionally produced satellites.
"The VSRS project builds upon our extensive work over the past five years adapting additive manufacturing techniques to fabricate multifunctional spacecraft structures," said TUI's CEO and Chief Scientist, Dr. Rob Hoyt. "We hope to leverage the power of additive manufacturing to enable a radical change in the way spacecraft are built, dramatically reducing costs and increasing performance for many missions."
3D printing also offers TUI the ability to cheaply create multiple component prototypes without waiting months in between drafts. If TUI can master the technology they may be able to apply it to traditionally produced satellites too. The Chief Technologist of Tethers Unlimited, Nestor Voronka said, "The desire to lower the cost and improve the performance of spacecraft systems is driving many satellite developers to consider commercial, off-the-shelf, or 'COTS' electronics, but these components are more susceptible to radiation than the very expensive hardened components that are traditionally used. The VSRS technology integrates radiation shielding into the spacecraft structures so we can enable those COTS components to operate reliably while maintaining their low-cost and low-mass advantages."
Tethers Unlimited isn't the only company working to make 3D printed objects in space. Foster + Partners are working with the European Space Agency to develop 3D printed habitats on the moon.