Advanced Robotic Arm Gets a Workout

HAMPTON, Va. (NASA PR) — A new robotic arm for assembling spacecraft and exploration platforms in space flexed its muscle in a successful ground demonstration Jan. 19.

The device, called the Tension Actuated in Space MANipulator (TALISMAN) was tested in the Structures and Materials Test Laboratory at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

TALISMAN is just one component of the Commercial Infrastructure for Robotic Assembly and Servicing (CIRAS). In this demonstration, the team manipulated the newer, longer arm back and forth from folded to extended positions to demonstrate that it is fully operational and ready for more comprehensive testing.

“The demonstration we accomplished last week was the rough equivalent of what the Navy calls a “shakedown cruise,” said John Dorsey, NASA principal investigator for CIRAS.

David Mercer sets up infrared targets to track the movement of the TALISMAN arm during a recent ground test. During this demonstration, the arm was repeatedly straightened and bent to show it could be manipulated. (Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman)

The tests will get progressively more difficult over the coming months as more detailed tasks are demanded of the robots. Future tests include not only a series of demonstrations exercising TALISMAN’s ability to move and manipulate objects along a truss, but also a demonstration of the NASA Intelligent Jigging and Assembly Robot (NINJAR) and the Strut Assembly, Manufacturing, Utility & Robotic Aid (SAMURAI) building two truss bays from pieces.

CIRAS is a collaboration with industry partner Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia, aimed at developing a “toolbox” of capabilities for use in servicing, refueling, and ultimately the construction of assets on orbit.

Advanced in-space assembly technologies will provide a more cost-effective way to build spacecraft and future human exploration platforms in space, such as the tended spaceport between the Earth and the Moon the agency is looking to build that would serve as a gateway to deep space and the lunar surface.

Jennifer Allen routes cables through the TALISMAN arm being assembled at Langley. When launched the cables and the metal structure will be folded up like an accordion and then expanded once the spacecraft is parked in space. (Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman)

One of the biggest benefits of in-space assembly is the ability to launch the necessary material and components in tightly packed envelopes, given rockets have limited capacity with strict requirements on the size and shape of pre-assembled items being launched into orbit.

“It’s the difference between taking your new bedroom suite home in a box from IKEA using your Honda Civic and hiring a large box truck to deliver the same thing that was fully assembled at a factory. Space is a premium on launches,” said Chuck Taylor, CIRAS project manager at Langley.

Being able to build and assemble components in space will allow more affordable and more frequent science and discovery missions in Earth orbit, across the solar system and beyond.

CIRAS is made up of several components. TALISMAN, the long-reach robotic arm technology, was developed and patented at Langley. TALISMAN moves SAMURAI, which is like the hand that brings truss segments to NINJAR, the robotic jig that holds the truss segments in place perfectly at 90 degrees while they are permanently fastened using electron beam welding to join together 3D printed titanium truss corner joints to titanium fittings at the strut ends. NINJAR was built almost entirely by interns in the lab. The students have done incredible things, Taylor said.

“We couldn’t have done what we’ve done without them,” he added.

CIRAS is a part of the In-Space Robotic Manufacturing and Assembly project portfolio, managed by NASA’s Technology Demonstration Missions Program and sponsored by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

The CIRAS team includes prime contractor Orbital ATK, supported by its wholly-owned subsidiary, Space Logistics, LLC; along with NASA Langley; NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio; NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. If Orbital and Langley are successful in this spring’s series of demonstrations, they may be awarded a second contract to demonstrate these same capabilities on orbit.

To learn more about NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, visit: