One company wants to fashion space stations out of space junk. Will it work?NANORACKS
- Nanoracks, a space company that specializes in getting commercial payloads to the ISS, plans to create the first space recycling program.
- The “Outpost” program will renovate spent upper stages already in orbit into space stations.
- The company plans to perform its first demonstration next May.
Just outside the upper reaches of our atmosphere, past the line separating Earth from space, lies an orbital junkyard of debris. And that junk just keeps piling up with the increasing commercialization of space, leaving many experts worried how the debris could impact astronauts, satellites, and future deep space missions. But where some people see trouble, others see opportunity.
Nanoracks, a space company that has previously helped get commercial payloads to the International Space Station (ISS), aims to recycle the derelict upper stages of rockets orbiting Earth into commercial space stations. The company’s program, “Outpost,” plans to turn Earth’s orbiting junkyard into a recycling center, where an army of robotic space drones will flip unwanted spent upper stages of rockets into orbiting laboratories, greenhouses, fuel depots, or possibly habitats.
Rockets usually have multiple stages that are decoupled to shave weight as they ascend to orbit. The lower stages fall back to Earth after burning all their fuel, pushing the upper stages into the upper atmosphere. The smaller, lighter upper stages give the final kick to place their payloads, and the upper stage itself, into orbit.
This puts rocket scientists at a crossroads: Do they leave enough fuel in the upper stage after orbital insertion so it can turn around, refire its engines, and deorbit to fall back to Earth? Or do they use every last drop of fuel to get the most bang for their buck, leaving the upper stage in orbit and adding to the already large roster of space debris?
In its annual space environment report, the European Space Agency (ESA) included rocket bodies as one of the largest threats to spacecraft:
“Ever since the start of the space age on the 4th of October 1957, there has been more space debris in orbit than operational satellites. Space debris poses a problem for the near Earth environment on a global scale, to which all spacefaring nations have contributed and for which only a globally supported solution can be the answer.”
Earlier this month, an abandoned upper stage of a Chinese rocket narrowly missed colliding with a defunct Soviet satellite. The two objects came within 80 feet of each other, traveling at speeds close to 32,900 miles per hour. The impact would have created an untold number of space debris, with a combined mass of 6,170 pounds. Events like these have put even greater pressure to do something about the growing cloud of space junk surrounding Earth.
Nanoracks CEO Jeffrey Manber, then, sees these derelict upper stages as a gold mine waiting to be prospected. Rocket stages already possess many of the qualities engineers look for in a space station. Upper stages are designed to withstand the incredible stresses of a launch and hold pressure in a vacuum, making them both very durable and safe (once the highly flammable and sometimes toxic fuel is purged).
For this reason, Nanoracks isn’t the first to propose the idea of using the upper stages of rockets to create space stations. NASA originally planned its first space station, Skylab, to be built from the upper stage of the mighty Saturn V rocket. Rocket engineer Wernher von Braun proposed venting and refurbishing the upper stage while in orbit to create a ‘wet workshop’ in which astronauts could live and work.
Servicing satellites in orbit, let alone stripping and renovating spent upper stages, is still an unproven technology. The closest analog may be the Hubble servicing missions that NASA conducted from 1993 to 2009, where teams of astronauts replaced and installed new parts on the Hubble telescope.
In recent years, NASA has moved its focus to unmanned operations. The On-orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing 1, or OSAM-1, is a robotic spacecraft designed to rendezvous with existing satellites and give them needed tuneups to expand their lifetimes.
Until the technology is proven, Nanoracks will take baby steps to realize its Outposts. The company plans to start small by focusing on the exterior of the rocket, by attaching experimental payloads, power modules, and propulsion units to the rocket’s fuselage.
“Right now, we’re not really modifying anything,” Nate Bishop, the Outpost project manager at Nanoracks, told WIRED:
“We’re focused on showing we can control the upper stage with attachments. But in the future, just imagine a bunch of little robots going up and down the stage to add more connectors and stuff like that.”
In late October, Nanoracks announced its first Outpost demonstration. In a partnership with NASA, the company plans to perform the first structural metal cutting ever done in space. The mission, which is scheduled to launch onboard a SpaceX rocket in May 2021, will include a robotic arm mounted on a platform containing metal pieces representing various upper stages of modern rockets. The arm is tipped with a drill bit that’s able to cut the metal without leaving any debris.
“At long last, Nanoracks is laying the groundwork for converting upper stages in orbit,” Manber said in a press release. “This technology could prove so important as both industry and NASA look to find the most cost-effective vehicles and programs that will bring humans to the moon, and soon to Mars.”