NASA has always built its spacecraft on Earth, but aerospace startup Tethers Unlimited is hoping to change that process by developing a system that combines 3D printing and robotic assembly to build spaceship parts in orbit. NASA is kicking in $500,000 in funding to the project, called SpiderFab, that will enable Tethers to begin testing and demonstrating manufacturing techniques. The money will bring the arachnid-looking concept one step closer to its goal of an in-space demo by 2020.

Football field-sized antennas built directly in space

In August 2012, Tethers was awarded $100,000 in initial funding from NASA that went into research and development. The latest injection of capital will be doled out over the next two years. During that period, the company will also develop what it calls a "Trusselator" — a machine that will use similar technology to build the support structure for solar arrays in space. "Once we've demonstrated that it works, we will be well on our way towards creating football field-sized antennas and telescopes to help search for Earth-like exoplanets and evidence of extraterrestrial life," says Rob Hoyt, Tethers CEO and chief scientist.

Spiderfab

NASA has funded other projects that aim to bring 3D printing into space, but those efforts have focused on making things inside of a shuttle and not building pieces of a spacecraft itself. The ability to build structures up to a mile long, Hoyt argues, will open NASA up to producing components that are "tens-to-hundreds of times larger than are possible now, providing higher power, higher bandwidth, higher resolution, and higher sensitivity for a wide range of space missions."