NASA’s Robot to Build Biggest Ever Composite Rocket Parts

NASA has one of the largest composites manufacturing robots ever created in America, and it will be used to build the biggest, lightweight composite parts ever made for space vehicles.

The Marshall space flight centre in Alabama has been investing in composites for a long time and this latest addition to its Composites Technology Centre will provide the required technology to develop low-cost and high-speed manufacturing processes for making large composite rocket structures. The structures that will be built using this machine will determine if they are a good fit for space vehicles that will carry humans on exploration missions to Mars and other places.

It takes a myriad of different materials to build a space vehicle like NASA’s new Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket designed to take explorers on deep space missions. The lighter the rocket, the more payload–crew, science instruments, food, equipment, and habitats–the rocket can carry to space. Lightweight composites have the potential to increase the amount of payload that can be carried by a rocket along with lowering its total production cost. NASA is conducting composites manufacturing technology development and demonstration projects to determine whether composites can be part of the evolved Space Launch System and other exploration spacecraft, such as landers, rovers, and habitats.

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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, NASA is using this industrial automated fibre placement tool in new ways to advance space exploration. Marshall’s investment in this robot will help mature composites manufacturing technology that may lead to more affordable space vehicles.

To make large composite structures, the robot travels along a 40-foot long track, and a head at the end of its 21-foot robot arm articulates in multiple directions. The head can hold up to 16 spools of carbon fibres that look like pieces of tape and are as thin as human hairs. The robot places the fibres onto a tooling surface in precise patterns to form different large structures of varying shapes and sizes. In what looks like an elaborate dance, the tooling surface holds the piece on a rotisserie-like system on a parallel track next to the robot. The robot head can be changed for different projects, which makes the system flexible and usable for various types of manufacturing.

The first project that the robot will tackle is making large composite structures for a Technology Demonstration Mission (TDM) program managed by Marshall for the Space Technology Mission Directorate. For the project, engineers will design, build, test and address flight certification of large composite structures similar to those that might be infused into upgrades for an evolved Space Launch System.

The large structures built by the robot will be tested in nearby Marshall structural test stands where spaceflight conditions can be simulated. NASA is a partner in the National/Interagency Advanced Manufacturing Initiative and will share its data with American companies to open up the marketplace for increased use of composites across a number of industries.