WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — Orbiting 250 miles above Earth’s surface is a large example of in-space assembly: the International Space Station. Modules, trusses, solar arrays and instruments were flown to space and assembled by astronauts during spacewalks and using space-controlled robotics.
On Nov. 6, NASA, along with the U.S. Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office — its principal partners in the Science & Technology Partnership Forum — hosted more than 50 industry members at NASA Headquarters in Washington for an open discussion on in-space assembly technology and projects. Representatives from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory involved in in-space assembly projects also attended.
“In-space assembly can change the game of space exploration. It enables a new way of doing missions,” said NASA Chief Technologist Douglas Terrier. “The partnership exists to identify synergies across government agencies and industry and to collaborate on those synergies, which will increase the technology capabilities developed at a lower cost.”
For NASA, in-space assembly opens the doors to assembling habitats away from the safe harbor of low-Earth orbit and building large telescopes that would be too massive to fly on even the biggest rockets. For their part, the U.S. Air Force and Navy want to use in-space assembly to build robotic satellite refueling and servicing stations in various orbits, including geosynchronous orbit, thus extending the life of satellites that would otherwise be decommissioned.
Working together to identify common needs and capabilities is a critical component of effective partnerships when it comes to in-space assembly and allows both government and commercial partners to leverage resources, expertise and ideas. This, in turn, makes it easier to develop, test and operate hardware and spacecraft. Some of the capabilities partnerships can enable include the ability to autonomously or semi-autonomously assemble large spacecraft or platforms in space, as well as the capacity to evolve and upgrade in-space vehicles and hardware. Such partnerships can also lead to reduced spacecraft life cycle cost by making spacecraft and hardware reusable and capable of flying multiple, potentially different, missions.
Developing new technologies also requires a paradigm shift from the traditional way of doing things. In the case of in-space assembly, it means designing space-based vehicles and hardware to be assembled, serviced and reused in space instead of the traditional models that limit the size of a spacecraft or telescope by the diameter of a rocket’s payload fairing.
One way to aid in this transition is to engage young professionals to create partnerships with experienced mentors through hardware development.
“We still have to build a smarter, more capable workforce,” said Roberta Ewart, the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center chief scientist. “To really get people excited, they have to do more hands-on things.”
The Science and Technology Partnership Forum has a multi-step method of facilitating discussions and pilot projects. The open forum on in-space assembly was one of those steps that bridges the gap between government and industry.
“The integrated interagency assessment allows us to strategically collaborate,” said Erica Rodgers, Science and Technology Partnership lead for in-space assembly in NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist. “We can now make better decisions from an interagency perspective because we have a repository of capability data, road maps, and assessment tools.”
The interagency Science and Technology Partnership Forum was established in 2015. It is a strategic forum set up to identify synergistic efforts and technologies in order to leverage those synergies and influence portfolios across space agencies in areas deemed pervasive and ready for collaboration.
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