Since the 1950s, there have been thousands of satellites launched into low-Earth orbit. Now, one of the biggest problems in space traffic management is how to dispose of thousands of inactive satellite and space equipment that float around like space junk.
Several ways space junk has been cleaned are through gigantic nets or magnets. Another solution to avoid accumulating space pollution is to deorbit rockets as soon as their payloads have been delivered. A third solution has also been proposed: recycling the metal parts to build space stations.
Repurposing Spent Rockets
Jeffrey Manber of Nanoracks, a logistics company that has provided several private in-space services for the International Space Station (ISS), revealed plans of turning old rockets into mini space stations. Although the idea is not new, it seems to be the right time to do so, especially since the ISS is anticipated to retire soon.
NASA has already looked into refurbishing fuel tanks in the past, shared Manber. However, the ideas were abandoned due to the lack of technology.
NASA's ideas involved astronauts doing assembly and manufacturing work in space, which was potentially dangerous, expensive, and slow. Manber's more recent ideas involve autonomous robots that accomplish welding work on spent rockets until they become appropriate parts for a space station. The miniature space stations could become laboratories, warehouses, or even fuel depots.
Nanoracks Space Outpost Program
The Nanoracks Space Outpost program is set to launch next year in June to complete the first demonstration of robots cutting tank material on-orbit. Success will be determined by the robot's ability to repurpose spent rocket without producing additional debris.
There are typically two stages of a rocket launch involving an engine and propellant tanks. During the second stage, the payload is brought into the orbital speed before being released and the rocket falls back into Earth. However, if the upper stage doesn't deorbit burn by the second stage, it falls into orbit as well and becomes space debris.
The same parts are ideal for a space station, shared Nanoracks. For example, rocket fuel is designed to withstand pressure due to the launch, meaning that it can also withstand the harsh conditions of space. The upper stages are also quite large. SpaceX's Falcon-9 upper stage is 9x12x30 feet large - the size of a spacious apartment.
Nate Bishop, the manager of the Outpost project, shared that currently, the team is focusing on showing how to control the upper stage with attachments like power supplies and experiment payloads. Later on, "a bunch of little robots" will be adding connectors and other parts to create a space station.
"When I look 15 or 20 years ahead, there will be scout missions looking for good things to salvage," said Manber. Prospects will be looking for parts to use for future in-space assembly.
"Outposts are our pillars of space exploration that are focused on concepts we cherish here on Earth: re-use and recycle," wrote the company. For now, Nanoracks will be focusing on the upper stages of new rockets. Later on, the interior of rockets will be developed into pressurized laboratories.
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