Skip to main content

NASA wants to manufacture spacecraft parts in low-Earth orbit

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.
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. Maxar Technologies

NASA announced it will contract Colorado company Maxar Technologies to develop a system for robotically assembling spacecraft parts in low-Earth orbit. The aim is to use new technology to both manufacture parts such as a spacecraft beam and to assemble parts such as a communications antenna, all while floating in orbit a thousand miles above the planet.

The manufacturing and assembly will take place on NASA’s Restore-L spacecraft, an upcoming mission that aims to extend the lifespan of satellites even if they weren’t originally designed to be serviceable. This should help make satellite operation more efficient, and should also lessen the problem of space debris caused by discarded and inactive satellites floating around in space.

Included on the Restore-L spacecraft, to be launched in 2023, is a tool called the Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot (SPIDER) which has a 16-foot robotic arm that can assemble parts of the communications antenna. For the manufacturing part of the mission, SPIDER will create a 32-foot lightweight composite beam using Tethers Unlimited’s MarkerSat technology which manufactures two-by-fours to create the basis of large space structures.

This is part of NASA’s project to commercialize low-Earth orbit and to build partnerships with private companies to make space exploration more affordable. With an increasing demand for satellite servicing and manufacture, doing these things in orbit would save money and time that currently goes toward launching payloads aboard rockets. It will also be useful for supporting manned missions to the moon or to Mars, as well as for servicing and upgrading space telescopes like Hubble or the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

“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,” Brent Robertson, project manager of Restore-L at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement.

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

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Moon, Mars, and more: NASA extends 8 planetary missions
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

NASA has decided to extend a range of active planetary science missions, a move that’s certain to delight scientists attached to the projects.

The space agency said the spacecraft -- the oldest of which launched more than 20 years ago -- had been selected to continue their operations because of their “scientific productivity and potential to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the solar system and beyond.”

Read more
Watch the splashdown of NASA’s first private ISS mission
watch the splashdown of nasas first private iss mission ax 1 homecoming

NASA’s first private mission to the International Space Station has ended successfully after the four-person crew splashed down in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule off the coast of Florida.

The four Ax-1 crewmembers -- Canadian investor and philanthropist Mark Pathy, American entrepreneur Larry Connor, former Israeli Air Force pilot Eytan Stibbe, and former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría -- came down in the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville, Florida, at 1:06 p.m. ET (10:06 p.m. PT) on Monday, April 25.

Read more
NASA has a plan to fix Lucy spacecraft’s solar array problem
An artist's concept of the Lucy Mission.

NASA's Lucy spacecraft has been traveling through space on its way to visit the Trojan asteroids since its launch in October last year, but the team has had to deal with an unexpected issue with its deployment.

The problem is with one of Lucy's two solar arrays. These needed to be folded up for launch so the spacecraft could fit inside its launch vehicle, then they deployed once Lucy reached space. The arrays deployed by unfolding, fan-like, into two distinctive round shapes which should then have been latched into place.

Read more