NASA Robot arm
NASA's new robotic arm aims to streamline production in the Alabama Space Flight Center. NASA/MSFC/Fred Deaton

NASA scientists are hard at work on a massive robot that aims to streamline the manufacturing process by spinning composite rocket parts out of carbon fiber. The U.S. space agency hopes the new technology will improve the parts' quality and make life easier for NASA engineers trying to crank out more materials than ever for a possible mission to Mars.

The 21-foot robotic arm travels up and down a 40-foot track, shooting carbon fibers out of 16 spools that are heated as they're released. This method ultimately will be used to build space materials larger than 8 meters in diameter, and could someday be used to construct entire rovers and landers.

“It's essentially a very sophisticated tape dispenser,” Justin Jackson, a materials engineer at NASA's Space Flight Center in Marshall, Alabama, where the new robot is based, said in a NASA video. “Composite manufacturing has advanced tremendously in the last few years, and NASA is using this industrial automated fiber placement tool in new ways to advance space exploration. Marshall's investment in this robot will help mature composites manufacturing technology that may lead to more affordable space vehicles.”

The robot's unveiling coincides with NASA's announcement that it also is working on experimental quadcopter drones that could maneuver through atmospheres on Mars, scouting the Red Planet while also prospecting for resources.