The ability to assemble large structures in orbit gets around the difficulty, or impossibility, of having to launch them whole, with the International Space Station being the best example.

But a concept regarded as a crucial step in launching a spacecraft sufficiently complex for a manned Mars mission may be taken back to the component manufacturing stage by work being undertaken by a UK engineering firm.

Leicestershire-based Magna Parva has been awarded a UK Technology Strategy Board grant to develop a capability called "Consolidated Off-Planet Manufacturing and Assembly System for Large Space Structures". COPMA makes use of technology such as pultrusion (from "pull" and "extrusion"), a continuous process of manufacturing composite materials of any length and with constant cross-section. Pultrusion is already used for making large structures often with directly embedded sensors such as stress sensors.

Magna Parva hopes to develop this technology for use in orbit, as an alternative to launching pre-manufactured components such as large solar arrays or solar sails. When assembled in space, structures can be made thinner and use less material as they do not have to withstand the rigours of launch. The long-term aim for COPMA systems is to develop a space-based technology that allows manufacture of large structures with embedded sensors, electronics and actuators.

"Development of the COPMA system plays directly to our strengths in extreme engineering", says Magna Parva commercial director Andrew Bowyer.

Source: Flight International