NASA’s team at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Is using one of the largest composites manufacturing robots created in America to build the biggest, lightweight composite parts ever made for space vehicles. The composite structures for the vehicles, which are larger than 26 feet in diameter, will be tested for NASA’s new Space Launch System, a rocket designed for deep space missions, including one to Mars.

Marshall chose lightweight composites because they have the potential to increase the amount of payload that can be carried by a rocket while simultaneously lowering its total production cost.

“Marshall has been investing in composites for a long time,” said Preston Jones, deputy director of Marshall’s Engineering Directorate. “This addition to Marshall’s Composites Technology Center provides modern technology to develop low-cost and high-speed manufacturing processes for making large composite rocket structures.”

To make large composite structures, the robot travels on track, with a head at the end of its 21-foot robot arm extending in multiple directions. The head can hold up to 16 spools of hair-thin CFRP strands, which it places on a tooling surface in precise patterns to make various shapes and sizes. The tooling surface holds the piece on a parallel track next to the robot. The robot head can be customized for different projects, which makes the system conductive to multiple types of manufacturing.

“These new robotic fiber placement tools are game changers because they can drastically reduce the cost and improve the quality of large space structures,” said John Vickers, the manager for NASA’s National Center for Advanced Manufacturing and the manager for the TDM composites project. “The automated digital capability aids in the design and development process and makes it more precise and efficient. This helps NASA meet the high reliability standards required to develop a process for building space vehicles that transport humans on deep space missions.”

For more information, watch NASA’s video on the project.