Maxar Technologies to demonstrate in-space assembly using robotic arm

Maxar Technologies recently announced a $142 million NASA contract to demonstrate in-space assembly using a robotic arm.

Maxar said the contract will take its Dragonfly robotics program, which started in 2015 as a DARPA study, and pair it with Restore-L, a refueling spacecraft the company is building for NASA.

Dragonfly has now been renamed the Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot, or SPIDER, and will launch onboard Restore-L in the mid-2020s.

Al Tadros, Maxar’s vice president of space infrastructure and civil space, said the NASA contract funds SPIDER through completion. It also funds a SPIDER demonstration with Tethers Unlimited’s MakerSat to build a 10-meter boom in space and attach it to Restore-L, he said.

Maxar’s demonstration contract calls for the in-orbit assembly of multiple antenna reflector dishes into one single reflector. Communications satellites use reflectors to beam television channels and internet connectivity to users.
Maxar said SPIDER’s demonstration could show how commercial satellites and telescopes could carry fixtures currently too large to fit inside rocket payload fairings.

Tadros said NASA will select the launch vehicle for Restore-L, equipped with SPIDER. He declined to give a launch time frame more specific than the “mid-2020s.” Restore-L was previously planned to launch in 2022.
Maxar is building SPIDER at its Pasadena, California, facility. Tadros said Maxar will leverage past experience building robotic arms for NASA Mars programs in building SPIDER.

Maxar said it is evaluating having independent verification for SPIDER and other work worth around $2 million performed at West Virginia University’s Robotic Technology Center.

Restore-L’s primary mission is to refuel Landsat 7, an Earth observation satellite launched into a sun-synchronous orbit in April 1999. Tadros said SPIDER’s demonstrations could begin about six months after Restore-L completes it refueling mission.