Voyager and Nanoracks have announced that the first Outpost demonstration mission (Outpost Mars Demo-1) is expected to launch this month aboard SpaceX’s Transporter 5 rideshare flight. This mission is part of the firms’ Outpost Program, which is focused on transforming used launch vehicle upper stages into uncrewed, controllable platforms.
Nanoracks designed a self-contained, hosted payload platform to demonstrate on-orbit, debris-free, robotic metal cutting. The company’s partner in this demonstration, Maxar Technologies, developed a new robotic arm with a friction milling end-effector.
Friction milling uses a cutting tool operating at high rotations per minute to melt the metal in such a way that a cut is made, and no debris is generated. Maxar’s robotic cutter is equipped with thermal sensors and cameras, and once in space, Nanoracks and Maxar will have up to one hour to complete the cutting of three metal pieces, made of corrosion resistant steel (the same material that is used on the outer shell of ULA’s Vulcan Centaur) without creating any debris in the process.
The demonstration itself will occur about 9 minutes into flight and will be finished approximately 10 minutes later. The rest of the time the team will downlink the photos and video to the ground stations until the vehicle and hosted payloads de-orbit over the Pacific.
This mission is integral to Voyager and Nanoracks’ long-term goal of converting upper stages into outposts in-orbit, highlighting the full potential of infrastructure-as-a-service in space and orbital sustainability.
“Maxar’s innovative robotics engineering on Mars Demo-1 represents a critical step toward using new technology to reduce future space debris,” said Chris Johnson, Maxar’s Senior Vice President of Space. “Maxar is excited to partner with Nanoracks on this demonstration, which will test new ways to keep space a safe place to operate and explore for future generations. We are committed to eliminating unnecessary debris while developing on-orbit servicing and manufacturing capabilities, technologies which will revolutionize the space industry.”
“We see this Outpost demonstration mission as contributing to NASA’s efforts to go to the Moon, Mars, and deep space,” said Marshall Smith, Nanoracks Senior Vice President of Space Systems. “NASA continues to turn to industry to test new exploration technologies, and we’re thrilled to support the agency’s goals through this demonstration while promoting the benefits of sustainable technology.”
Outposts are being designed to offer:
- Iterative Development – Each new Outpost will add additional capabilities and customization options, with future offerings including robotics, satellite servicing, fuel depots, and more.
- Rapid Integration – The Mission Extension Kits (MEKs) are integrated as an approved secondary payload, turning any launch into an Outpost rideshare. Outpost configurations allow for multiple, pre-approved payload hosting options on the upper stage.
- Infrastructure-as-a-Service – Outposts, in conjunction with other technology development projects, will serve as the central locations for future, more complex orbital operations.
- Launch Vehicle Scalability – MEK configurations fare being developed or a diverse range of launch vehicles, with the goal of repurposing every upper stage into an Outpost.
- Sustainability and Debris Mitigation – With Outposts, spent upper stages live on as controllable infrastructure, rather than orbital debris.
Cislunar Industries is partnering on a concept to harvest, cut, refine, and reuse metal from existing space junk (including a planned Bishop Airlock demo in 2023).
Learn more about Voyager Space’s sustainability initiatives at this direct link…
This program is funded as a partnership between NASA and Nanoracks through Appendix A: Habitat Systems to the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships-2 (NextSTEP-2) Broad Agency Announcement. Through NextSTEP-2, sponsored by Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA Headquarters and its industry contracts managed at Goddard Space Flight Center and Marshall Space Flight Center’s Habitation Systems Development Office, NASA and its partners are working to identify habitation concepts that can support extensive human spaceflight missions around and beyond cislunar space and applications to commercial habitation capabilities in low-Earth orbit. Near Space Network is providing communications support to the mission so that data sent from the payload can be received on Earth for analysis.