The robotic system can build large structures held by a rotisserie-like structure. Photo courtesy: NASA/MSFC/Fred Deaton.
The robotic system can build large structures held by a rotisserie-like structure. Photo courtesy: NASA/MSFC/Fred Deaton.

The Composites Technology Center at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has installed a large robot in order to build what it says will be the world’s biggest space rocket parts made of carbon fiber composites.

‘This addition to Marshall’s Composites Technology Center provides modern technology to develop low-cost and high-speed manufacturing processes for making large composite rocket structures,’ said Preston Jones, deputy director of Marshall’s engineering directorate. ‘We will build and test these structures to determine if they are a good fit for space vehicles that will carry humans on exploration missions to Mars and other places.’

The robot is mounted on a 40-foot-long track in Marshall’s Composites Technology Center that is part of NASA’s National Center for Advanced Manufacturing. To make large composite structures, the robot travels on a 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 fibers that look like pieces of tape and are as thin as human hairs. The robot places the fibers onto a tooling surface in precise patterns to form different large structures of varying shapes and sizes. 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 aTechnology 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.

Affordable space

‘The robot will build structures larger than eight meters, or 26 feet, in diameter – some of the largest composite structures ever constructed for space vehicles,’ said Justin Jackson, the Marshall materials engineer who installed the robot. ‘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. Marshall's investment in this robot will help mature composites manufacturing technology that may lead to more affordable space vehicles.’

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.

‘These new robotic fiber placement tools are game changers because they can drastically reduce the cost and improve the quality of large space structures,’ added John Vickers, the manager for NASA’s National Center for Advanced Manufacturing and the manager for the TDM composites project. ‘The automated digital capability aids in the design and development process and makes it more precise and efficient. This helps NASA meet the high reliability standards required to develop a process for building space vehicles that transport humans on deep space missions.’

The large structures built by the robot will be tested in nearby Marshall structural test stands where spaceflight conditions can be simulated.

This story is reprinted from material from NASA, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier.