Watching astronauts endure zero-gravity (G) conditions during space walks to install or fix components shows the challenge of assembling hardware in space environments. Now imagine doing that without humans, instead using robots to overcome the same challenges remotely. That’s what Maxar is testing, and we showed progress in a demo recently completed in Pasadena, California.

New video shows a robotic arm picking up and placing an object in a simulated space environment during an end-to-end test of a representative mission planned for SPIDER.

“This test demonstrates another significant step in Maxar’s robotic capability,” said Artak Arakelian, General Manager of Robotics at Maxar. “Together with our partners, we developed precision movements that allow exact articulation to assemble in space a radio frequency reflector, which is the largest part of a communications antenna. In parallel, Maxar developed a zero-gravity testing system that gives engineers confidence the arm will work in orbit.”

Maxar is building NASA’s Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot (SPIDER), a payload that will develop the capabilities to complete in-orbit assembly and reconfiguration of spacecraft components. SPIDER will launch on NASA’s OSAM-1, a spacecraft Maxar is building that will refuel and relocate a satellite on-orbit.

The arm

The lightweight, 5-meter-long dexterous robotic SPIDER arm is designed for complex operations in space, with 7 degrees of freedom of movement. Previous tests in Pasadena demonstrated individual elements of the arm assemblies, but this latest activity showed the whole system working in a simulated zero-G environment for the first time.

“This new capability we built for NASA is working, and soon we’ll be able to use SPIDER to assemble complex structures in orbit and potentially add capability to existing space infrastructure,” said Arakelian. “We’ve applied learnings from the six robotic arms we have on Mars and our on-orbit servicing arms developed for both low Earth and geostationary orbits applications.”

The video shows a SPIDER test arm picking up a reflector segment from its stowage location and attaching it to the assembly. The objects and movements in the demonstration parallel what SPIDER will encounter during its first mission.

Simulating space

The recent demo took advantage of a new system that simulates a zero-G environment in orbit, called an off-loader. It’s hard to simulate zero-G on Earth, so Maxar applied their robotics knowledge to improve its testing facility.

“Most off-loaders use passive systems such as helium balloons to suspend objects or air bearings to float the hardware on a horizontal surface,” said Arakelian. “Our new off-loader goes further because it is actuated. We actively follow and adjust tension on different parts of the robotic arms, and that more accurately simulates the dynamics of moving an arm in space.”

When launched on OSAM-1, SPIDER will help demonstrate what’s possible with on-orbit assembly and servicing. Through these programs, Maxar is accelerating a future where satellites, telescopes and other systems could be assembled from components, enabling much larger assemblies that would otherwise not fit into a standard rocket fairing. Additionally, OSAM-1 will refuel and relocate a satellite in orbit, developing the infrastructure to extend the life of spacecraft on orbit even for those structures not designed for servicing.

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