Space is littered with dead rocket stages. What if we turned them into habitats?

From Popular Mechanics

  • Nanoracks, an aerospace company specializing in getting commercial payloads to the ISS, plans to launch the first space recycling program.
  • The “Outpost” program will renovate used upper stages already in orbit space stations.
  • The company plans to be first demonstration next May.

Just outside the headwaters of our atmosphere, beyond the line separating Earth from space, is a junkyard of rubble. And that mess continues to pile up with the increasing commercialization of space, leaving many experts worried about how the debris will impact astronauts, satellites and future deep space missions. But where some people see problems, others see opportunities.

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Nanoracks, an aerospace company that previously helped bring commercial payloads to the International Space Station (ISS), wants to recycle the dilapidated upper stages of rockets in orbit into commercial space stations. The company’s program, “Outpost, ”Plans to turn the orbiting junkyard into a recycling center, where an army of robotic space drones will convert unwanted used upper stages of rockets into laboratories, greenhouses, fuel depots or potentially habitats.

Rockets typically have multiple stages that disconnect to shave weight as they come to orbit. The lower stages fall back to Earth after burning all of their fuel and pushing the upper stages to the upper atmosphere. The smaller, lighter upper stages provide the final kick of putting their payloads, and the upper stage itself, into orbit.

This puts rocket scientists at a crossroads: After insertion into orbit, do they leave enough fuel in the top stage for it to turn around, re-fire its engines, and fall back to Earth? Or do they use every last drop of fuel to get the most for their money, leaving the top stage in orbit and adding to the already large collection of space debris?

In its annual environmental report on space, the European Space Agency (ESA) lists rocket bodies as one of the biggest threats to spacecraft:

“Since the beginning of the space age on October 4, 1957, there have been more space debris in orbit than operational satellites. Space debris is a problem for the near-Earth environment on a global scale, to which all spaceflight nations have contributed and for which only a globally supported solution can provide the answer. “

Earlier this month, an abandoned upper stage of a Chinese missile missed a collision with a defunct Soviet satellite. The two objects came within 25 meters of each other and were traveling at speeds of nearly 32,900 miles per hour. The impact would have caused an untold amount of space debris, with a combined mass of 6,170 pounds. Events like these have exerted even greater pressure to do something about the growing cloud of space debris around Earth.

Jeffrey Manber, CEO of Nanoracks, sees these dilapidated upper stairs as a gold mine waiting for prospects. Rocket stages already possess many of the qualities that engineers look for in a space station. The upper stages are designed to withstand the incredible stresses of a launch and hold the pressure in a vacuum, making them both highly durable and safe (once the highly flammable and sometimes toxic fuel has been purged).

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For this reason, Nanoracks is not the first to propose the idea of ​​using the top stages of rockets to create space stations. NASA originally planned to build its first space station, Skylab, from the top stage of the mighty Saturn V rocket. Rocket engineer Wernher von Braun proposed venting and renovating the upper stage in Earth orbit to create a “ wet workshop ” in which astronauts could live and work.

Maintaining satellites in orbit, let alone stripping and renovating used upper stages, is still an unproven technology. The closest analog could be the Hubble maintenance missions that NASA conducted from 1993 to 2009, where teams of astronauts put new parts on the Hubble telescope.

In recent years, NASA has shifted its focus to unmanned operations. The On-orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing 1, or OSAM-1, is a robotic spacecraft designed to merge with existing satellites and give them the necessary adjustments to extend their life.

Until the technology is proven, Nanoracks will take baby steps to realize its outposts. The company plans to start small by focusing on the rocket’s exterior, attaching experimental payloads, power modules, and propulsion units to the rocket’s hull.

“We’re not really making any adjustments at this point,” Nate Bishop, the Outpost project manager at Nanoracks, told WIRED:

“We aim to show that we can control the top stair with attachments. But just imagine in the future a bunch of little robots going up and down the stage to add more connectors and stuff like that. “

Nanoracks announced its first POO demonstration at the end of October. In a partnership with NASA, the company plans to perform the first ever structural metalwork in space. The mission, which will be launched aboard a SpaceX rocket in May 2021, will include a robotic arm mounted on a platform with metal pieces that represent various upper stages of modern rockets. The arm is equipped with a chuck that can cut into the metal without leaving any dirt behind.

“Nanoracks is finally laying the groundwork for converting higher stairs into orbit,” Manber said in a statement. press release. “This technology could prove to be so important as both industry and NASA are looking for the most cost-effective vehicles and programs that will take people to the Moon and soon to Mars.”

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