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NASA funds in-space manufacturing demo

Antenna on Restore-L
An artist’s conception shows Maxar Technologies’ SPIDER robot assembling a communications antenna for the Restore-L spacecraft. (Maxar Technologies Illustration)

NASA has awarded a $142 million contract to Maxar Technologies for a demonstration of in-space construction technologies, including the robotic assembly of a communications antenna and the production of a structural beam.

The beam-manufacturing device, known as MakerSat, is being provided by Tethers Unlimited, a space technology company headquartered in Bothell, Wash.

Maxar, Tethers Unlimited and other partners — including the West Virginia Robotic Technology Center and NASA’s Langley Research Center — will have their hardware integrated onto NASA’s Restore-L spacecraft, which Maxar is getting ready for launch in the 2020s.

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Why asteroids loom as future space frontier

Asteroid mining
In this artist’s conception, a mining spacecraft makes a rendezvous with an asteroid. (SpaceResources.lu)

It’s been 55 years since satellite communications became the first commercial space frontier, and space tourism is looming as the next frontier. But what comes after that? Would you believe in-space mining and manufacturing?

Those are the opportunities that came to the fore on July 29 when members of the Association of Professional Futurists gathered at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

“The big change that I foresee is when we begin to live and work on the asteroids, using them as the resources for our civilization. … We are going to see a leap in productivity to create wealth and to allow us to do things without harming the Earth,” said Brian Tillotson, who is the systems technology chief engineer for Boeing Research and Technology and a Boeing senior technical fellow (as well as a science-fiction writer).

“It’s going to be much bigger than the industrial revolution, and this time it’s going to be good for the Earth, not bad for the Earth,” Tillotson said.

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How robots and humans get along at Boeing

Boeing robots
The robots that are part of Boeing’s Fuselage Automated Upright Build system work inside and outside a 777 jet fuselage during assembly. (Boeing via YouTube)

Automation isn’t just a job for the robots: It takes flesh-and-blood workers to make robotic manufacturing work, as shown in a new video about the machines that set fasteners on Boeing’s 777 jets.

Boeing’s Fuselage Automated Upright Build, or FAUB, works with operators and mechanics at the company’s plant in Everett, Wash., to do some of the heavy lifting for 777 assembly. So far, more than 40 jets have gotten the FAUB treatment.

The job begins when teams of mechanics move the panels that form the forward and aft sections of the fuselage into place. Pairs of robots, inside and out, move in unison to “drill and fill” the thousands of fasteners required to secure the panels.

In Boeing’s feature about FAUB, mechanic Mike Jennings says all that drilling and filling used to be done by hand – a task that was “really tough and stressful” on his back, neck, shoulders and arms.

Now Jennings is a robot operator – monitoring views from a camera mounted on the robot arm, maintaining the system and making tweaks to optimize performance.

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Tethers Unlimited to try out orbital manufacturing

In-space construction
An artist’s conception shows a future satellite building scaffolding from carbon-fiber composites. (Credit: Tethers Unlimited)

A division of Tethers Unlimited Inc., a space technology company based in Bothell, Wash., says it has signed a contract with a big-name spacecraft provider to demonstrate how future satellites could build their own frameworks in space.

The deal calls for Tethers Unlimited’s business division, known as Firmamentum, to fly its manufacturing hardware on a telecommunications satellite as part of Space Systems Loral’s Dragonfly program. Space Systems Loral is one of the world’s leading builders of satellites and spacecraft systems.

Firmamentum is working on a technology known as the “Trusselator,” which is designed to fabricate large, lightweight truss structures out of carbon-fiber composites. Such structures could help support antennas, sensors, solar arrays and other components.

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777X tool sets record for 3-D-printed objects

Image: Judge measures tool
Guinness World Records’ judge, Michael Empric, measures the trim tool (Credit: ORNL)

A trim-and-drill tool that will be tested during construction of the Boeing Co.’s next-generation 777X jet has already produced something notable: recognition from Guinness World Records as the world’s largest solid 3-D-printed object.

The trim tool, developed at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, was made in only 30 hours using carbon fiber and ABS thermoplastic composite materials. It’s 17.5 feet long, 5.5 feet wide and 1.5 feet tall, and weighs about 1,650 pounds.

After Oak Ridge completes verification testing, the tool will get its tryout at a Boeing production facility in St. Louis, Mo. It’ll be used to secure the jet’s composite wing for drilling and machining before assembly.

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