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The Evolution of Space Manufacturing: On-Orbit Assembly and Robotic Technologies


In the annals of space exploration, satellites and spacecraft have traditionally been conceived on Earth, meticulously constructed, and then launched into orbit. However, this conventional approach poses inherent limitations on the size, volume, and design complexity of payloads due to constraints imposed by the fairing of launch vehicles. These constraints, particularly fairing diameter limitations, restrict the size and number of instruments deployable in orbit for scientific and national security missions.

As humanity’s exploration of space reaches new heights, innovative technologies are emerging to redefine the way we approach satellite deployment and assembly beyond Earth’s atmosphere. On Orbit or In-Space Assembly (OOS/ISA), Automated Satellite On-Orbit Servicing (OOS), and Robotic Manufacturing and Assembly (IRMA) represent the next revolution in space exploration. These cutting-edge advancements promise to revolutionize satellite capabilities, enhance mission longevity, and open up unprecedented possibilities for space-based industries.

On Orbit or In-Space Assembly (OOS/ISA):

To overcome the constraints posed by traditional satellite manufacturing and launch methods, two technologies are actively pursued: On-Orbit Assembly (OOS/ISA) and On-Orbit Manufacturing. OOS/ISA involves the aggregation of ready-made structures onto an orbiting platform. This approach, whether structures are manufactured on the ground or in space, offers advantages in deploying structures that cannot be launched from Earth due to fairing size and shape constraints.

Traditionally, satellites were launched into space as fully assembled entities, limited by the size constraints of the launch vehicle. In particular, fairing diameter limitations restrict the size and number of instruments that can be fielded in orbit for science and national security missions. Current manufacturing and technological limitations are evident in the construction of antennas and mirrors that have to be deployed from a single launch with a single satellite. It is obviously unrealistic to use traditional launch methods for structures with large volumes (diameter greater than 15 m or size greater than 20 m, such as large space telescopes, large space habitats).

OOS/ISA disrupts this norm by envisioning a future where satellites are assembled and constructed in space itself. This approach allows for the creation of larger, more complex structures that can outperform their traditionally launched counterparts. It provides many other advantages such as an ability to achieve increased flexibility and resilience of spacecraft assets enabled by assembly involving additions, replacements and technology updates of payloads onto a compliant, orbiting platform. An ability to create structures that cannot be created on Earth at all because of constraints imposed by the terrestrial gravity.

ISA encompasses assembly activities completed in various target orbits, including Low Earth Orbit, Geostationary Orbit, Cis-Lunar Space, Mars Orbit, Mars Surface, Lunar Space, and interstellar space. It involves assembling modules in space to form larger functional elements or recombining structures after separation. OOS/ISA allows for the creation of much larger orbital structures, enabling the deployment of sensitive radar imaging, higher-speed communication antennas, and other ambitious projects.

Key benefits of OOS/ISA include reduced launch costs, as satellite components can be sent up individually and assembled in space. Moreover, it enables the creation of massive structures, such as telescopes or communication arrays, that were previously unfeasible due to launch limitations.

Automated Satellite On-Orbit Servicing (OOS):

OOS introduces the concept of automated maintenance and servicing of satellites while they are in orbit. This revolutionary idea addresses the challenges of satellite malfunctions, component degradation, or the need for upgrades after launch. Automated systems equipped with robotics and artificial intelligence could perform intricate tasks like component replacement, refueling, and even repairs.

The implications of OOS are profound. Satellites that were once considered “disposable” due to malfunctions or fuel depletion can now be rejuvenated, extending their operational lifetimes and reducing the growing issue of space debris.

Advantages of In-Space Assembly

The benefits of OOS/ISA are multifaceted. It enables the construction of larger structures beyond the constraints of Earth’s gravity, facilitating the assembly of space telescopes, habitats, and communication arrays. Additionally, the flexibility and resilience of spacecraft assets are enhanced by allowing additions, replacements, and technology updates of payloads onto an orbiting platform. The reduction in the number and intensity of ground-based tests and the use of less packaging material contribute to cost savings.

Traditional ground-based construction methods require all spacecraft components to be hardened to withstand the harsh launch environment. This hardening process imposes penalties in terms of mass and size, limiting payload capabilities and increasing launch costs. At the same time, another consequence of this approach is technology obsolescence due to the long-term ground construction and verification process.

On-orbit assembly mitigates these challenges by reducing the need for extensive ground-based testing and minimizing the use of structural materials for ruggedization.

Robotic Manufacturing and Assembly (IRMA):

IRMA takes the concept of OOS a step further by introducing robotic systems capable of manufacturing and assembling components in space. This not only includes satellite components but also extends to the construction of large-scale structures, space habitats, and exploration vehicles.

By leveraging automated robotic systems, IRMA allows for the creation of intricate structures with a level of precision and efficiency not achievable by human hands alone. This paves the way for ambitious space-based projects, such as constructing platforms for scientific research, assembling interplanetary spacecraft, and establishing sustainable habitats beyond Earth.

The Impact on Space Exploration:

The combined impact of OOS/ISA, OOS, and IRMA on space exploration is monumental. These technologies enable the construction of more sophisticated and powerful satellites, fostering breakthroughs in communication, Earth observation, and scientific research. The ability to service and repair satellites extends their operational lifetimes, contributing to sustainability efforts in space.

Economic and environmental benefits: OOS/ISA promises major cost savings on complex space projects, while reducing the environmental footprint of launches. On-orbit servicing extends the life of satellites, minimizing space debris and the need for replacements. IRMA unlocks access to resources and materials impossible on Earth, potentially revolutionizing industries and driving sustainable space development.

Moreover, IRMA holds the promise of advancing humanity’s presence in space by enabling the construction of structures beyond satellites. The prospect of in-space manufacturing for interplanetary missions, space stations, and even lunar or Martian habitats could reshape our approach to long-term space exploration.

Challenges and Future Prospects:

Despite the tremendous potential of OOS/ISA, several challenges need to be addressed. The space environment presents unique obstacles, including microgravity, atomic oxygen (in Low Earth Orbit), radiation, and micrometeoroid impacts. Protective shell structures may be necessary to shield assembly activities from these environmental concerns.

And though space construction eliminates the challenge of carrying structures via spacecraft, the supplies and machinery necessary for a build still need to be transported from Earth. The heavy machinery we would typically use for construction projects, like carry deck cranes and scissor lifts, aren’t outfitted to work anywhere other than Earth.

Standard construction tools and equipment are not designed for use in space, requiring innovative solutions to ensure successful on-orbit assembly. Additionally, developing materials that can withstand radiation bombardment and the extremes of outer space environments is crucial for the success of in-space construction projects.

For LEO operations, there is also the continual significant variation in the lighting environment caused by going in and out of eclipse, which may negatively impact vision-based operations.

While the potential benefits are vast, challenges such as technological complexity, regulatory frameworks, and the need for international collaboration must be addressed. Moreover, ensuring the safety and sustainability of these technologies to prevent the generation of space debris is paramount.

Technological Solutions and Applications

In-space assembly technologies can be categorized based on complexity and assembly tools used. According to the complexity of the assembly, the lowest complexity  ISA task just involves mating between elements, i.e. two or more independent spacecraft are assembled into a larger space structure and assembled in space with the lowest complexity. The more complex task would be Modular assembly, that is docking and assembly of cabins or modules to make it an independent spacecraft or to expand and reconstruct its functions. The most complex assembly is Assembly from parts: Assembly from initial parts to components needs to go through multiple assembly stages, which is similar to building a computer from the power supply, heat sink and other parts, such as building a truss from a structural member, or installing a mirror segment and alignment on a structural frame mechanism.

An analysis of the potential applications shows that the demanded cross-cutting capabilities are robotic assembly, standardized interfaces, modular design with high stiffness, deployable subsystems, and docking and berthing.

The technologies employed include manual assembly by astronauts, autonomous assembly by space robots, and fully autonomous space robot systems. These require the availability of dexterous robot systems capable of performing complex assembly tasks. OOS addresses the maintenance of space systems in orbit, including repairing and refueling, using technologies that can be extended to on-orbit robotic assembly.

Imagine instead of launching entire satellites, we send up smaller, modular components. In orbit, robotic arms assemble these pieces like interstellar Legos, creating structures far grander than anything a single rocket could carry. Telescopes with mirrors the size of football fields, space stations that grow with each mission, and even factories producing materials in the microgravity environment—all built in space, for space.

Other possible applications of in-space assembly include artificial gravity or asteroid redirect vehicles, space transportation hubs, space telescopes, in-situ resource utilization for construction, solar electric power and propulsion, sun shields, and atmospheric deccelerators.  In the future, robotic construction capabilities could also be applied to create space infrastructure, standing structures such as refueling depots, in-space manufacturing facilities, space-tourism complexes, and asteroid mining stations. Developing a strong and sustainable way of ISA will become the key to human space exploration.

International Initiatives

Several countries, including the United States, Europe, Japan, Canada, and China, have launched space assembly experiments. Initiatives such as the Demonstration for Autonomous Rendezvous Technology (DART), Spacecraft for the Universal Modification of Orbits (SUMO), and the “Orbital Express” sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have showcased advancements in on-orbit assembly and servicing capabilities.

Companies like Space Forge are already building the world’s first in-space manufacturing platform, while NASA is developing robotic astronauts capable of complex repairs and assembly. International collaborations are pushing the boundaries, with the Lunar Gateway planned as a hub for future OOS/ISA projects.

NASA’s On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM) Initiatives

NASA is at the forefront of developing technologies for on-orbit assembly and manufacturing. The In-Space Robotic Manufacturing and Assembly (IRMA) project, part of NASA’s Technology Demonstration Missions (TDM) program, aims to enable more frequent and versatile space missions. Components such as TALISMAN, SAMURAI, and NINJAR are part of CIRAS, demonstrating ground-based technology for space-based, robotic assembly.

In addition, NASA is actively exploring in-space manufacturing techniques for telescope mirrors using atomic layer deposition (ALD). ALD, a thin-film manufacturing technique, could potentially be applied in space to coat optics with highly reflective materials, a crucial step in constructing and assembling large telescopes in microgravity.

NASA’s OSAM-1 mission, set to rendezvous with, grasp, refuel, and relocate a government-owned satellite, will also demonstrate on-orbit assembly and manufacturing capabilities. The mission involves the use of the Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot (SPIDER) to assemble a communications antenna and manufacture a beam.

Beyond the United States, various countries are contributing to the evolution of space assembly and servicing technologies. European Robotic Arm (ERA), developed by Airbus Defence and Space Netherlands, is an example of a versatile robotic arm with seven degrees of freedom, employed for tasks such as solar panel installation and astronaut extravehicular activity assistance on the International Space Station (ISS).

Germany’s Intelligent Building Blocks for On Orbit Satellite Servicing and Assembly (iBOSS) project, initiated in 2010, focuses on in-space manufacturing. The iBOSS spacecraft employs standardized interfaces and modular design to significantly reduce satellite maintenance costs through standardization and modularization. It explores the assembly of intelligent modular cubes into reconfigurable spacecraft, showcasing the potential for cost-effective on-orbit service and assembly.

In Canada, the Canadarm series, including the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (SRMS) and Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS), played vital roles in the assembly and maintenance of the ISS. The next-generation Canadarm (NGC) is under development, featuring a large manipulator arm with a 15-meter range and a small manipulator arm with a 2.6-meter range. This telescopic arm design aims to support both low Earth orbit and deep space missions, offering enhanced capabilities for satellite deployment and operation.

The Surrey Space Centre (SSC), in collaboration with institutions such as the California Institute of Technology, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST), is engaged in the Autonomous Assembly of the Reconfigurable Space Telescope (AAReST) mission. AAReST utilizes circular mirrors to demonstrate key technologies for low-cost on-orbit assembly and reconstruction of space telescopes using independent Cubesats equipped with propulsion systems.

Private Sector Initiatives:



The Dragonfly Project, led by Space Systems Loral (SSL) in Palo Alto, California, represents a groundbreaking initiative in space infrastructure development. This project focuses on the development of a robotic satellite assembly system that allows satellites to self-assemble in orbit. Featuring a lightweight design and a versatile 3.5-meter robotic arm, Dragonfly can undertake tasks ranging from installing delicate satellite antennas to assembling massive satellites too large for a single launch. The ability to launch satellites in pieces, subsequently assembling them in space, presents an opportunity to maximize cargo space, reduce mass, and significantly cut launch costs, leading to more cost-effective and high-performing satellites.

Dragonfly incorporates advanced features such as optimized reflector stowage, robotic joint assembly, and 3D-printed antenna support structures. These elements facilitate the accommodation of more powerful satellites within the payload space of standard launch vehicles, contributing to further cost reductions. The project’s initial ground demonstration focused on the installation and reconfiguration of large antenna reflectors on a simulated geostationary satellite, showcasing its potential to revolutionize satellite technology. Ongoing demonstrations aim to refine Dragonfly’s processes, including enhancing robotic arm movement and achieving more precise reflector alignments.

As Dragonfly progresses, it plans to integrate 3D printing technology for the automated manufacture of new antennae and replacement reflectors. This innovation allows for remote removal and recycling of outdated components, ensuring the system’s adaptability and longevity. Collaborations with entities like NASA’s Langley Research Center, Ames Research Center, Tethers Unlimited, and MDA US Systems LLC underscore the project’s commitment to leveraging commercial innovation for transformative advancements in space technology.


In a similar vein, NovaWurks, a U.S.-based company, is advancing space technology through its modular satellite design known as Hyper-Integrated Satlets (HISats). Positioned to support DARPA’s Phoenix program, HISats exemplify a low-cost, modular satellite architecture drawing inspiration from biology and engineering. Weighing approximately 15 pounds each, HISats function as small independent modules with essential satellite capabilities. Their cellular nature allows differentiation on demand, adapting to specific tasks in an on-orbit environment, making them versatile for various missions.

NovaWurks’ HISats aim to revolutionize satellite design by offering scalability that eliminates the need for spacecraft adaptation, reducing non-recurring costs associated with payload integration. The company’s successful demonstration on the International Space Station (ISS) and upcoming deployment in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) showcase the adaptability and cost-effectiveness of this innovative satellite architecture. NovaWurks envisions HISats opening new possibilities for missions that were previously inconceivable, emphasizing the robustness and resilience of a cellular design in overcoming challenges associated with space exploration.


The private sector is also contributing to the advancement of in-space assembly technologies. The Archinaut project by Made In Space aims to combine 3D printing and robotic arms to build and assemble large structures in outer space. Archinaut utilizes additive manufacturing technology and robotic arms to autonomously construct complex components, providing a glimpse into the future of space infrastructure construction.

These initiatives collectively highlight the global efforts and innovations in advancing robotic satellite assembly, modular satellite design, and on-orbit servicing capabilities. As technology continues to evolve, these advancements hold the promise of transforming space exploration, making it more cost-effective, efficient, and adaptable to a wide range of missions.

China’s Tiangong Space Station: A Shining Example of On-Orbit Assembly

China’s Tiangong space station stands as a remarkable achievement in on-orbit assembly. Launched in modules, it showcases this innovative technique and paves the way for future large-scale space structures.

Assembly Timeline:

  • April 2021: The core module, Tianhe, blasts off, establishing the station’s foundation.
    Image of Tianhe core module of China's space station
  • July 2022: The Wentian laboratory module docks with Tianhe, marking the first major assembly maneuver.
    Image of Wentian laboratory module of China's space station
  • October 2022: The final piece, the Mengtian laboratory module, completes the T-shaped configuration through another precise docking.
    Image of Mengtian laboratory module of China's space station

Assembly Highlights:

  • Automated docking: Chinese-developed autonomous rendezvous and docking technology eliminates the need for spacewalks, streamlining the process.
  • Modular design: Each module is self-contained and pre-equipped, allowing for flexible expansion and future upgrades.
  • Robotic arms: The Tianhe core module’s robotic arm facilitates external tasks like payload deployments and module connection adjustments.

Benefits of On-Orbit Assembly:

  • Reduced launch costs: Breaking down large structures into smaller modules allows for more frequent and cost-effective launches.
  • Flexibility and scalability: The modular design enables future expansion and adaptation to evolving needs.
  • Technological advancement: On-orbit assembly pushes the boundaries of robotic manipulation and autonomous systems in space.

Looking Ahead:

China’s plans for Tiangong extend beyond its current configuration. Additional modules, including an inflatable habitation module, are in the pipeline, potentially doubling the station’s size. This ongoing assembly demonstrates China’s commitment to on-orbit construction and its potential to revolutionize space exploration.

Ethical considerations:

Questions abound about resource extraction in space, potential environmental impacts of in-orbit manufacturing, and the equitable distribution of space-based resources. We must ensure these technologies benefit all of humanity, not just a select few, and establish clear guidelines for responsible space utilization.

Conclusion: A New Horizon for Space Exploration

The evolution of on-orbit assembly and manufacturing technologies represents a paradigm shift in space exploration. As advancements continue, humanity stands on the cusp of a new era where the construction of large-scale structures and spacecraft is not confined to Earth but extends into the vast expanse of space.

In conclusion, OOS/ISA, OOS, and IRMA are at the forefront of the next space revolution, unlocking unprecedented possibilities for human exploration and scientific discovery. These technologies open the door to ambitious space missions, interplanetary exploration, and the establishment of sustainable human presence beyond our home planet.

The future of space is assembling itself, one robotic arm at a time. As we witness the culmination of years of research and innovation, the cosmos becomes not just a destination for exploration but a frontier for human ingenuity and collaboration.












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