Building things in orbit is an inherently tricky business – just look at the 13 or so years it took to us piece together the International Space Station. Granted not all the structures we build in space will be the size of a football field, but having robots handle the heavy lifting could go a long way to keeping humans out of danger and speeding things up. To that end, NASA has teamed up with private space firm Orbital ATK to develop new technologies for in-orbit assembly of large space structures, all in the name of getting us to Mars and beyond.

The project is dubbed Commercial Infrastructure for Robotic Assembly and Services (CIRAS), and as the name suggests, it aims to develop new robotic technologies that can build large structures in orbit. These might include next-gen space telescopes or solar arrays that power future spacecraft.

A part of the challenge will be coming up with new technologies to connect and disconnect joints, along with using long robotic arms and robots to carry out precision measuring. The project also aims to develop new technologies that can help automate the modular assembly of structures in orbit, allowing single pieces to be carried to the site through several launches and pieced together once they leave the atmosphere.

The CIRAS forms part of a NASA program called Utilizing Public-Private Partnerships to Advance Tipping Point Technologies. The program aims to encourage the private sector to develop mutually beneficial technologies that both give the commercial space sector a boost, and can be tapped for future NASA missions.

"Through this partnership and the first phase of the contract award, we will demonstrate our space logistics capabilities with new robotics technology," says Frank Culbertson, Orbital ATK Space Systems Group President. "Our CIRAS team will create technologies that will advance the nation's capability for building the framework needed for NASA's journey to Mars, as well as shape the future of commercial space infrastructure."

Source: Orbital ATK