Assembly and Manufacturing in Space

NASA has awarded a $142 million contract to Maxar Technologies of Westminster, Colorado,to robotically assemble a communications antenna and manufacture a spacecraft beam in orbit. The technology demonstration is slated to take place on NASA’s Restore-L spacecraft, designed to service and refuel a satellite in low-Earth orbit.

Above – The Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot (SPIDER) technology demonstration is slated to take place on NASA’s Restore-L spacecraft. The payload will assemble a functional communications antenna and manufacture a spacecraft beam. Credits: Maxar Technologies

The Restore-L spacecraft will be modified to accommodate a payload called Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot (SPIDER). The payload includes a lightweight 16-foot (5-meter) robotic arm. Previously known as Dragonfly during the ground demonstration phase of the NASA Tipping Point partnership, SPIDER will assemble seven elements to form a functional 9-foot (3-meter) communications antenna. The robotically assembled antenna will demonstrate Ka-band transmission with a ground station.

The payload also will manufacture a 32-foot (10-meter) lightweight composite beam using technology developed by Tethers Unlimited of Bothell, Washington. The manufacturing element of the demonstration will verify the capability to construct large spacecraft structures in orbit.

“We are continuing America’s global leadership in space technology by proving we can assemble spacecraft with larger and more powerful components, after launch,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “This technology demonstration will open up a new world of in-space robotic capabilities.”

The second phase of the public-private partnership combines NASA resources with an industry contribution to reduce the overall cost to American taxpayers and the agency. The demonstration will mature technologies with cross-cutting applications for government and commercial missions, including human exploration of the Moon and Mars and in-space construction of large telescopes.

“In-space assembly and manufacturing will allow for greater mission flexibility, adaptability, and resilience, which will be key to NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach,” said Brent Robertson, project manager of Restore-L at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The Restore-L project is developing a suite of technologies capable of refueling and servicing satellites in space. The spacecraft is currently targeted for launch in the mid-2020s.

The SPIDER payload team includes Maxar, Tethers Unlimited, West Virginia Robotic Technology Center in Morgantown, and NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

8 thoughts on “Assembly and Manufacturing in Space”

  1. Unfortunately, the launch target is mid-20s, and this is just an early in-space demo. Not a great way for a startup to make quick progress.

  2. Good to see TUI getting some action, after MadeInSpace got that big Archinaut demo contract. TUI with their SpiderFab concept is the only real competition to Archinaut.

  3. Yep. Starship could work a smaller lander too.

    Admittedly, I’d like to see the kind of interplanetary ship Starship could act as a lander for.

    Probably a crewed ship to the Outer Planets?

  4. It seems odd to me that the hardware wouldn’t be sent to the space station, so it could used time, and again.

  5. If you can build a large ship in orbit you can also take a couple starships along as landing craft or cargo vessels.

  6. Deep space crewed interplanetary craft will be the most likely candidates. And all kinds of space stations in Cislunar or Cismartian space.

    SpaceX Starship is designed to function as an interplanetary cruiser, but I think it will be used to carry crew mostly between Earth, the Moon and Mars (maybe the asteroids?) in the coming decades, due to the risks of microgravity and space radiation on longer trips.

    For cargo there are less restrictions, and Starship could indeed take many, many probes, drones and landers to farther destinations.

    But for crewed trips beyond Mars departing from Earth, we need to have some serious construction work in orbit for having a viable ship, probably a nuclear one, in order to minimize trip time and maximize shielding mass.

    The advantage of Starship is that it will exist and become well proven for several years (maybe decades) before that happens, and the future crews will find supplies and infrastructure waiting for them wherever they go, sent there by the reliable Starship service.

  7. It’s going to be very interesting once we get to the point of manufacturing large craft un orbit. Or, perhaps, maybe even in deep space.

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