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Need To Build In Space? Just Hit 'Print'

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You've just been tasked with building something enormous in space. How do you do it? Send up an army of spaceships with all the necessary building materials? Every additional pound of material will run you about $9,000 to $40,000, according to Techcrunch. Forget that.

Make alliances with friendly builder aliens? First, we'd have to find them, then, we'd have to trust them not to lay eggs in our chest cavities. Pass.

So what's a space architect to do? Print the structures, of course.

Researchers at Georgia Tech 3-D printed an object made with tensegrity, a structural system of floating rods in compression and cables in continuous tension.

The Artist Formerly Known as Prints

Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology recently discovered a way to use 3D printing to create objects that can actually grow and expand to much larger sizes, the site 3ders explains. The researchers published their results in the journal Scientific Reports.

The secret is in temperature control: after the structures are printed, they can be heated and folded flat. As the structures cool, they'll retain that flat shape (a great packing trick). When it's time for them to resume their original shape, they can be heated up again, when they'll start to unfold.

The technique is called 4D printing, because the 3D printed structure changes shape over time, and time is the fourth dimension.

"The goal is to find a way to deploy a large object that initially takes up little space," said Glaucio Paulino, a professor at Georgia Tech's School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Like Origami

The new technique could make it much cheaper and easier to build structures in space. And though scientists haven't yet perfected the technique enough to erect buildings in outer space, that kind of application could be on the horizon.

"We believe that you could build something like an antenna that initially is compressed and takes up little space, but once it's heated, say just from the heat of the sun, would fully expand," said Jerry Qi, a professor at Georgia Tech's George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering.

The principle behind this type of building is called tensegrity, a combination of "tensional integrity." It has already been used to build some structures here on Earth, a press release from the Georgia Institute of Technology notes. Early successes include the pedestrian bridge in Brisbane, Australia, and the stadium roof of the Olympic Gymnastics Arena in Seoul, South Korea. And it might not be long before we have more examples in space.

Related: Folding Objects With Light

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. Chemical engineers are using infrared light to make objects fold themselves. 00:11

  2. When light is shined on the sheet, the black lines absorb light and shrink to form a hinge. 00:36

  3. A temperature of about 248°F is needed for the process to work. 00:59

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