NASA Gives a Financial Boost to In-Space Welding Projects

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA selected two projects for funding focused on developing in-space welding technologies as part of its recent round of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards.

The space agency selected Busek Company of Natick, Mass., and Made in Space of Jacksonville, Fla., for phase 1 awards worth up to $125,000 apiece for six months.

“Busek proposes to initiate the development of a semi-autonomous, teleoperated welding robot for joining of external (or internal metallic uninhabited volume at zero pressure) surfaces in space,”according to the proposal summary. “This welding robot will be an adaptation of a versatile Busek developed system called SOUL (Satellite On Umbilical Line) with a suitable weld head attached to it.

“SOUL is a small (<10kg), nanosat-sized space vehicle hosted by and deployed from a larger mother ship (Host Space Vehicle, HSV) as needed to perform a variety of duties. SOUL was originally developed to capture large space debris (and towed by the HSV to a disposal orbit) which now includes servicing. Upon completion of its mission the SOUL is re-stowed inside the HSV in a marsupial-like manner,” Busek added.

The company said that in addition to welding, SOUL could perform the following tasks:

  • inspecting and repairing the external surfaces of the International Space Station, Lunar Gateway and reentry vehicles;
  • servicing satellites in Earth orbit;
  • providing assistance to astronauts or robotic systems;
  • capturing small samples from asteroids or comets and returning them to the mother ship; and,
  • refueling spacecraft using a propellant hose attached to the umbilical.

Made in Space (MIS) will pursue the development of a space laser welding system.

“MIS proposes to develop a Mobile End-effector Laser Device (MELD) capable of on-site, on-demand joining and repair of space structures. MELD is a self-sufficient end-effector that interfaces with a robotic arm and uses the arm for mobility,” the company said.

“This system is programmed to be autonomous and relies on minimal human interaction, depending on the task,” the summary added. “The MELD system provides a tool that applies to many use cases and repair functions that are vital to future long duration exploration missions.”

Made in Space said MELD could be used for ISS and Lunar Gateway repairs.

“MELD would be used to remediate any damage that would occur to the external surfaces by either welding over or adding material to the outside of the surface for additional strength and protection,” the company said.

The proposal summaries follow.


Welding and Repair in Space
Subtopic Title: Development of Mobile Welding Capabilities
for In-Space Manufacturing

Busek Company, Inc.
Natick, MA

Principal Investigator
Vlad Hruby

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 3
End: 4

Technical Abstract

Busek proposes to initiate the development of a semi-autonomous, teleoperated welding robot for joining of external (or internal metallic uninhabited volume at zero pressure) surfaces in space. This welding robot will be an adaptation of a versatile Busek developed system called SOUL (Satellite On Umbilical Line) with a suitable weld head attached to it.

SOUL is a small (<10kg), nanosat-sized space vehicle hosted by and deployed from a larger mother ship (Host Space Vehicle, HSV) as needed to perform a variety of duties. SOUL was originally developed to capture large space debris (and towed by the HSV to a disposal orbit) which now includes servicing. Upon completion of its mission the SOUL is re-stowed inside the HSV in a marsupial-like manner.

Unlike “free flying” robots, the SOUL never runs out of power, communicates securely with its HSV over a fiber optic link embedded in the umbilical without the need for encryption, and in case of malfunction, does not become another uncontrolled space debris. Thus, SOUL is a low risk system that in case of malfunction, is retracted by the HSV and re-stowed.

Unlike fixed robotic arms attached to large spacecraft, the low mass, low momentum of the SOUL precludes damage inducing accidental collisions that may create additional space debris. The SOUL system was awarded a US patent. When equipped with suitable welding device, SOUL can perform both micrometeoroid damage repair and join metallic surfaces by welding.

In Phase 1, one or two candidate welding technologies will be selected and tested in Busek vacuum chamber. The principal candidates include Laser, Electron Beam, arc-based techniques (TIG and MIG) and spot-welding. Busek has Laser, robotic TIG for 3D printing, and Spot welders in house.

The existing SOUL vehicle will then be examined to assess the changes required to carry the selected welder. Finally, the existing SOUL will be tested to determine if its position control is adequate for welding.

Potential NASA Applications

In addition to welding applications SOUL has the following broad application set:

  • Inspection of the ISS and Gateway external surfaces. (eliminates dangerous manned EVAs).
  • Assistance to astronauts or robonauts.
  • Servicing and inspection of heat shield on all returning vessels/reentry vehicles to prevent another Columbia.
  • Capture of small samples from asteroid/comet surface without landing the larger mother ship.
  • Refueling – the umbilical line can include a propellant hose.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The SOUL system and or its elements have a long list of possible commercial applications which in some cases overlap with NASA applications. Examples include:

Inspection of the host spacecraft, and proceeding to servicing/repair. Of particular interest to GEO ComSat owners/primes is observation during deployment of appendages, anomaly diagnostic, and assessment of aging.

Duration: 6 months


Mobile End-Effector Laser Device (MELD)
Subtopic Title: Development of Mobile Welding Capabilities for In-Space Manufacturing

Made in Space
Jacksonville, Fla.

Principal Investigator
Brandon Kirkland

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 2
End: 4

Technical Abstract

Made In Space (MIS) is the leader in manufacturing technologies for the outer space environment and has built an Exploration Manufacturing technology portfolio that contains methods for additive, subtractive, and casting manufacturing processes. However, technology advances and system requirements continue to push the boundaries of what is needed by future space explorers and commercial products.

Beginning with the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF), MIS has progressively pursued additional manufacturing processes using the core subsystems of AMF as a baseline. VULCAN, a metal additive and subtractive manufacturing machine, and EMMA, an electronics manufacturing machine, are two programs that are currently underway. AMF, VULCAN, and EMMA provide a basis for pursuing in-space welding and are used to guide MIS from initial systems requirements development, through creating the critical design of this capability.

MIS proposes to develop a Mobile End-effector Laser Device (MELD) capable of on-site, on-demand joining and repair of space structures. MELD is a self-sufficient end-effector that interfaces with a robotic arm and uses the arm for mobility. Key subsystems are directly contained in the end-effector such as power supply, laser system, cooling system, vision system, and avionics.

This system is programmed to be autonomous and relies on minimal human interaction, depending on the task. The MELD system provides a tool that applies to many use cases and repair functions that are vital to future long duration exploration missions.

Potential NASA Applications

The International Space Station and Lunar Gateway are two large NASA assets that require maintenance due to the environments they are in. Free orbital debris, micrometeorites, and other hazards cause unseen and unplanned damage to the outsides of these habitats and must be considered when human lives are at stake. MELD would be used to remediate any damage that would occur to the external surfaces by either welding over or adding material to the outside of the surface for additional strength and protection.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The autonomy provided by the combination of a robotic arm appendage and MELD provide significant cost benefits to mass production and construction companies. High levels of accuracy and precision are two main principles that must be followed with welding and could potentially be disastrous if not achieved. Welding of car struts, foundation beams, and large construction benefit from using MELD.

Duration: 6 months