Spaceflight Insider

Orbital ATK to develop ‘tipping point’ orbital assembly technologies

Orbital ATK's concept of MEV on-orbit

Orbital ATK’s concept of MEV on-orbit. Image Credit: Orbital ATK.

Orbital ATK is developing Commercial Infrastructure for Robotic Assembly and Services (CIRAS), a set of in-space hardware assembly technologies, under the NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate’s (STMD) “tipping point” program. This public-private partnership will focus on capabilities needed for future human and robotic exploration missions.

Program objectives

In an Orbital ATK media release, Space Systems Group President Frank Culbertson said:

Through this partnership and the first phase of the contract award, we will demonstrate our space logistics capabilities with new robotics technology. 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.

The CIRAS mission capabilities will include methods of connecting or disconnecting joints on a structure and performing precision measuring and alignment with a 15-meter robotic arm and a precision robot. The team also will develop technologies needed to conduct in-orbit modular assembly of structures, allowing parts to be brought to space as needed via multiple launches. This approach to space logistics is designed to simplify the design of spacecraft and reduce cost.

CIRAS began Phase I of its program in September 2016. Phase I will last two years, during which Orbital ATK will mature technologies necessary for robotically assembling large space structures, such as next-generation telescopes or transport or communications hardware.

The CIRAS team will include Orbital’s subsidiary Space Logistics, LLC, NASA Langley Research Center (LaRC), NASA Glenn Research Center (GRC), and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL).

Expanding Orbital’s in-space capabilities

CIRAS is an outgrowth of the work Space Logistics has been pursuing in satellite life extension. The company is developing a Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV), which will rendezvous and dock with a satellite and take over the attitude, orbit maintenance, antenna pointing, and station keeping needs of the joined vehicle. Intelsat became the anchor customer for the MEV in April 2016.

Tom Wilson, president of Space Logistics, explained, “During CIRAS, we will build upon the MEV’s existing capabilities, such as rendezvous and docking. It’s an amazing opportunity to execute our roadmap to develop the technologies and lower the risks of delivering higher value, more sophisticated space logistics to support many civil and commercial mission opportunities in the future.”

CIRAS is one of three programs awarded under the NASA STMD’s “Utilizing Public-Private Partnerships to Advance Tipping Point Technologies” solicitation. This program called upon commercial companies to mature technologies beyond their “tipping point”. NASA considers a space technology to be at a tipping point if a ground or flight demonstration will significantly mature the technology, has a high probability that it will be used in a commercial space application, and that it will significantly improve a company’s ability to bring it to market successfully.

Video Courtesy of Orbital ATK



Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.

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