Maxar has signed a contract for an $8.7 million Tipping Point award with NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate to develop a Lunar Underactuated Robotic Arm (LUnA) prototype capable of supporting Artemis operations on the moon by the end of the decade. The space agency announced the Tipping Point selection in October 2020. The LUnA prototype will be equipped with flight-qualified hardware and be developed on a two-year timeline.

The project aims to develop a more cost-effective robotic arm that can support in-space operations. The key difference between LUnA and a conventional robotic arm is that LUnA runs on a single motor. Typically, robotic arms have multiple actuators that allow a joint to rotate, and each joint in the arm has its own motor and gear box. In comparison, LUnA uses a tensioned cable system to transmit torque from a single actuator to any number of separate joints, removing the need for actuators at each joint and reducing weight and cost.

Artist render of LUnA on a Maxar spacecraft.

Packaging that actuator and its associated avionics at the robot base also improves thermal management and radiation protection, which may even enable LUnA to survive the lunar night, an important consideration for the Artemis program.

Maxar is partnering with SRI International for this project. SRI is an independent research and development organization with more than 75 years of experience in developing technologies that support both government and industry. LUnA will be based on SRI’s design for an underactuated robotic hand, which received a 100 percent performance score from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under its Autonomous Robotic Manipulation-Hand (ARM-H) program. In addition, SRI will contribute the electrostatic brakes to be used in the manipulator joints. The LUnA project will be the first time SRI’s technology will be leveraged for a space-based application.

LUnA is well-equipped to support planetary rovers both large and small. Ultimately, the design could be used for in-space free flyer capture, mining, payload transfer and tugging, and refueling operations.

Maxar has a rich history of building robotic arms for NASA rovers and landers, including Mars ’01, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, Curiosity, InSight and Perseverance. Currently, Maxar is building multiple robotic arms for NASA missions including for the On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing 1 technology demonstration, SPIDER and SAMPLR.

Learn more about Maxar’s robotics programs.

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