When NASA astronauts touch down on the surface of the Red Planet, the explorers may have arrived there on a spaceship built, in part, by a giant robot recently designed by the American space agency. The mechanical worker is capable of manufacturing the largest rocket parts ever created from lightweight composite materials.
Carbon fiber materials are, currently, the best choice for many spacecraft parts. The material is extremely lightweight and incredibly strong. However, developing new parts using these composite materials is a slow, laborious process.
Sitting in the Composites Technology Center at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, the new robot holds 16 spools of carbon fibers. These space-age threads, as thin as a human hair, are placed onto the piece being constructed, until the entire project is complete.
When rockets lift off from the Earth, they need to carry not just the payloads but also their own masses, including fuel, off the surface of the Earth. Because of this, carbon fiber materials can drastically reduce the cost of missions and allow larger, more complex payloads to be put into orbit.
"The robot will build structures larger than 8 meters, or 26 feet, in diameter, some of the largest composite structures ever constructed for space vehicles. Composite manufacturing has advanced tremendously in the last few years, and NASA is using this industrial automated fiber placement tool in new ways to advance space exploration," said Justin Jackson, a materials engineer at the Marshall Space Flight Center.
This giant robot is designed, in part, to create new prototypes that could be part of future missions, or updated versions of the coming Space Launch System (SLS). In fact, the first products to be created by the massive robotic arm will be prototypes of upgraded systems for the SLS. After manufacture, these pieces will then be tested at the Marshall structural test stands, where space-like conditions can be simulated.
The robotic manufacturing arm is placed on an arm 40 feet long, allowing the device to travel from one end of a piece under construction to another. As the piece being constructed is held on a rotisserie-like appendage, the spools of carbon fiber dance around the object as the material is applied. The 21-foot-long arm holding the head of the robot can move in multiple directions as the composite is applied.
"Composite materials are used across NASA projects for everything from aircraft to human space vehicles to planetary probes," said Larry Pelham from the Marshall Space Flight Center.
This massive robot and others like it could revolutionize the manufacture of rockets, and perhaps increase humanity's access to the last frontier.