NASA has awarded a $142 million contract to Maxar Technologies to demonstrate the viability of in-orbit robotic assembly and manufacturing. The technology could allow satellites to be equipped with powerful components that may otherwise be unable to fit into a standard rocket fairing.
The Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot (SPIDER) will hitch a ride aboard NASA’s Restore-L spacecraft in the mid-2020s. Restore-L is a spacecraft being developed Maxar and NASA that will be used to service and refuel a satellite currently in low-Earth orbit. The combined package will, as a result, have the ability to service, refuel, assemble and manufacture while in orbit.
Once in orbit, the SPIDER payload will be responsible for the assembly and manufacturing capabilities. It will be tasked with assembling a 3-meter (9-foot) communications antenna and manufacturing a 10-meter (32-foot) lightweight composite beam.
The 3-meter communications antenna is made up of seven parts. During assembly, SPIDER will utilise a robotic arm to assemble each element of the antenna. Once it is assembled, it will be used to demonstrate Ka-band transmission with a ground station verifying its functionality.
To manufacture the 10-meter composite beam, SPIDER will be equipped with the MakerSat payload provided by Washington-based Tethers Unlimted. MakerSat will create the 10-meter carbon-fibre beam in a continuous process with the beam extending out from the spacecraft millimetre by millimetre.
Neither the NASA nor the Maxar press releases announcing the $142 million contract detailed the exact nature of this manufacturing. As a result, it is still unclear how long it will take for the 10-meter beam to be produced and if it will serve any function other than verifying the technology.