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Developments to Watch
MAKING SPACECRAFT IS AS EASY AS CHILD'S PLAY
BUILDING SATELLITES JUST became a snap. Engineers at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Composite Optics Inc. of San Diego have developed a process by which the structural components of a spacecraft are snapped together like a child's toy.
The process--which is about two-thirds faster and cheaper than other methods such as welding and bolting--begins with laminated sheets of graphite and epoxy that are cut into pieces by a pinpoint jet of water so powerful it can slice steel. The pieces have half-inch-wide tabs and slots on their edges.
Being composites, they don't expand and contract with temperature the way that metals do--important for satellites or other structures where any misalignment can be the source of major problems.
Builders of the Hubble space telescope used Composite Optics' components for some of the instrument's support structures. Next year, the Energy Dept. plans to launch a research satellite made entirely of snap-together composites. It's called FORTE, for Fast On-Orbit Recording of Transient Events.EDITED BY PETER COY