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ThinkOrbital to Demonstrate Robotic Welding Arm in Space

Boulder-based startup ThinkOrbital is preparing to attempt a groundbreaking demonstration of a robotic arm equipped with a welder gun in space.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Wed May 29 2024Written by Zac Aubert

Boulder-based startup ThinkOrbital is preparing to attempt, a groundbreaking demonstration of a robotic arm equipped with a welder gun in space.

The tool which is designed to repair and take X-ray images of satellites, is part of the company's broader vision to create a comprehensive toolkit for spacecraft maintenance and repair in orbit.

The upcoming demonstration builds on the success of ThinkOrbital's recent autonomous welding experiment, which was launched as a payload aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as it launched a Starlink mission on May 6. The experiment, validated this month, showcased ThinkOrbital's core welding technology by autonomously welding aluminum samples during the suborbital flight.

“We welded in outer space...We have images, so we know that part worked.” - Lee Rosen, ThinkOrbital CEO and Co-Founder

The welded samples were returned to Earth on the Falcon 9 booster and are now being analyzed by NASA and European Space Agency experts to understand the effects of microgravity on the welding process.

ThinkOrbital is one of several companies selected by NASA last year for Space Act Agreements to advance commercial space capabilities.

For its self-funded demonstration in October, the company plans to test a robotic arm equipped with an electron beam welder, which can also generate X-rays to inspect objects in space.

This dual capability has attracted interest from the U.S. military as a potential tool for identifying threats in orbit.

“Potentially this would give us the ability to look inside satellites to see what’s in there...Given the recent Russian launch of what we suspect is a nuclear weapon on board a satellite as a counterspace weapon, the government is very interested in this.” - Lee Rosen, ThinkOrbital CEO and Co-Founder

ThinkOrbital has already secured a U.S. Air Force Phase 1 Small Business Innovative Research contract to explore satellite-to-satellite X-ray inspection and is applying for Phase 2 funding. The X-ray technique is very similar to what the X-ray machine at the airport does, only on a different scale and different power.

The company envisions deploying robotic arms to satellite-servicing companies operating in various orbits to “fix things, patch holes, weld things together,”

Looking further ahead, ThinkOrbital is pursuing an ambitious concept called ThinkPlatform — a spherical habitat designed to be flat-packed and robotically assembled in orbit using welding and additive manufacturing techniques.

One application of this platform could be to store and recycle orbital debris.