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The number of space applications for aerospace 3d printing continues to grow with the recent announcement by Tethers Unlimited that they will develop spacecraft structures with embedded radiation shielding. Under a contract with the Air Force Research Laboratory, they will continue their work on developing 3D printing methods for radiation shielding. This is a Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract.
Tethers Unlimited's "Versatile Structural Radiation Shielding" (VSRS) technology is already well developed and quite effective at absorbing space radiation. The flexibility of 3D printing is key in their process. It enables the fabrication of shielding components with minimal mass to be created in a cost effective manner. Cost and weight are important considerations for anything launched into space.
Cost reduction is the primary reason behind the need for radiation shielding. Off-the-shelf, commercial electronics are less costly than the radiation hardened components that are normally used. Because of commercial components' vulnerability to radiation, shielding is required for use in space. The shielding will be integrated into the space craft structures with layers of polymer and metals that are exceptionally efficient at absorbing space radiation.
Dr. Rob Hoyt, Tethers Unlimited’s CEO and chief scientist had this to say about their experience with the technology:
The VSRS project builds upon our extensive work over the past five years adapting additive manufacturing techniques to fabricate multifunctional spacecraft structures
With NASA funding, Tethers Unlimited is also developing technology for building space craft structures in orbit. Currently, their focus is on unmanned spacecraft but they are considering more ambitious space applications for 3D printing which may include manned missions.
Tethers Unlimited, Inc. is headquartered near Seattle, Washington, and develops technologies for space, sea, and air. They started developing space tether technologies for space debris removal as well as momentum exchange tethers for launching payloads into higher orbits. They have since expanded their expertise over a broader area which includes the technology needs for high performance components for satellites.