WASHINGTON, DC (NASA PR) — A robot stretches its limbs and systematically climbs across a tubular structure, using the truss’s crossbars as handholds; one limb after another, it reaches and grabs the next handhold while releasing the ones behind it. Pulling itself along, it inspects the structure it just assembled in space.
The technological capability enabling this autonomous building and inspection of large structures in space — known as in-space assembly — is being developed right now by NASA, other government agencies, academia and industry. NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist plays a key role in the technology’s development through coordination and participation in a series of technical interchange meetings — TIMs.
“As a principal partner in the interagency Science and Technology Partnership Forum, NASA is leading a series of TIMs that foster collaboration on really tough technology questions we need answered – questions that also are relevant to other government agencies and America’s aerospace and industrial base,” said Douglas Terrier, NASA’s acting chief technologist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
Partners comprising the forum include NASA, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, the U.S. Air Force, the National Reconnaissance Office and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
TIMs are one of the tools the members of the forum use as they develop specific technologies or capabilities — such as autonomous or semi-autonomous in-space assembly. These technologies and capabilities are those identified as having important applications for space exploration and national security.
Each technology development series is conducted in phases — each phase includes a TIM — during which experts discuss the technology, come to a consensus on its details, identify projects for inter-agency collaboration and begin working together to conquer a challenge.
The in-space assembly team has completed the first phase and is now in the second phase of their program, which included a TIM in September at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. At that TIM, participants held in-depth discussions about each agency’s plans to develop in-space assembly capabilities.
“Now we’re trying to understand more about the capabilities that each of these agencies is developing,” said Erica Rodgers, strategic partnerships lead for the Office of the Chief Technologist at NASA Headquarters.
This interagency collaboration combines the expertise, experiences and perspectives of the national space technology development community and leverages sharing of resources, according to Rodgers. The expected result is a complex technology applicable and necessary across the U.S. government at a lower cost of development to the taxpayer. It’s expected that many of these leveraged technology development activities also will be of great benefit to American industry.
Two significant areas identified as having applications across government and commercial sectors are the assembly and servicing of large and modular spacecraft. Using in-space assembly, the Department of Defense and national security communities will be able to quickly update and upgrade the technology on their satellites without launching new ones.
In-space construction and modularity also are important to NASA for both robotic and crewed exploration. Using the capability, massive spacecraft — including telescopes larger than the James Webb Space Telescope and habitats for the exploration of Mars — can be assembled, serviced and upgraded without the cost, complexity or risk of using astronauts.
In addition, the potential commercial markets for American businesses that develop and provide this capability will open a new chapter in commercial space economic opportunity.
The goal of the current TIM team discussion is to develop an assessment of synergistic collaboration opportunities across the agencies. The final phase of the TIM will conclude this initial work, as the team reaches out to the commercial sector and academia to incorporate the knowledge, expertise and research capabilities of the entire aerospace and technology community.
“As advocates for public-private and innovative partnerships to assure America’s continued global leadership in science and technology, our team is dedicated to engaging America’s aerospace community and academic institutions to assure our efforts bridge back to practical commercial applications while also benefiting America’s workforce of tomorrow,” Terrier said.
As NASA and the United States use and explore space in a greater capacity than ever, the necessity to build and service large structures in space will continue to grow. The work done by the TIMs team helps ensure the safety of our nation. They also inform us and act as a catalyst for revolutionizing our understanding of how we will construct and use of large, modular structures in space during the coming century of exploration and discovery.
To learn more about NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/oct
For more information about NASA’s In-Space Robotic Manufacturing and Assembly projects, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/tdm/irma/index.html