US company plans first in-orbit demo of structural steel cutting

Louis Dillon

SpaceX will launch a payload for US company Nanoracks to demonstrate the feasibility of robotically cutting up derelict rocket second stages and turning them into habitats.

US company plans first in-orbit demo of structural steel cutting
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The demonstration mission is part of the Nanoracks Space Outpost Program to address the future need for in-space orbital commercial platforms, simultaneously making use of existing vehicles and materials designed specifically for space.

This mission is planned for late 2020 and like all launches is subject to change. This Outpost demonstration has been funded by way of Nanoracks’ NextSTEP-2 contract with NASA.

“Nanoracks will be building a self-contained hosted payload platform that will demonstrate the robotic cutting of second stage representative tank material on-orbit. Never before has structural metal cutting been done in-space,” Nanoracks chief executive officer Jeffrey Manber said last month.

“As a member of the Outpost program team, Maxar will develop a new articulating robotic arm with a friction milling end-effector for this mission. This friction milling will use high rotations per minute melting our metal material in such a way that a cut is made, yet we anticipate avoiding generating a single piece of orbital debris.”

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The Nanoracks Outpost demonstration will be conducted after all other secondary payloads have been deployed. 

“Structural metal cutting has never been done in space and SpaceX is honoured to help deliver a demonstration of this capability to orbit,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief operating officer.

“It’s promising to see more companies like Nanoracks investing in new technologies to advance the exploration of the Moon and ultimately, Mars.”

Everyone knows there’s a lot of space junk in Earth orbit, ranging from very small to large and spent rocket second stages, used to carry payloads to orbit, are at the larger end of the spectrum.

Nanoracks’ vision is that these could be converted into orbital research stations, habitats and more.

Using these discarded spacecraft upper stages left behind in orbit, the company hopes to show how it one day might be able to greatly reduce the costs of establishing space stations and habitats.

“At long last, Nanoracks is laying the groundwork for converting upper stages in orbit,” Manber said.

“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. This mission is just step one of many for Nanoracks, and we are grateful to NASA for providing us with this outstanding opportunity.”

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