Xplore, Nanoracks team up on deep-space missions

Xcraft and moon
An artist’s conception shows Xplore’s Xcraft probe making its way to the moon. (Xplore Illustration)

Seattle-based Xplore says it’s joining forces with Houston-based Nanoracks to create low-cost rideshare opportunities for payloads heading for the moon, Mars and other destinations beyond Earth orbit.

The partnership takes advantage of the commercial approach to deep-space exploration that’s being pioneered at NASA under Administrator Jim Bridenstine, said Lisa Rich, Xplore’s chief operating officer and co-founder.

“We’re the perfect fit for Bridenstine’s goal of NASA being one partner of many partners,” she told GeekWire today.

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Nanoracks will test metal-cutting robot in space

Nanoracks hardware
An artist’s conception shows the deployment of hardware that would deploy a set of satellites and then demonstrate a robotic metal-cutting technique for in-space habitat construction. (Nanoracks Illustration)

Nanoracks says it’ll put a metal-cutting robot to work in orbit next year as part of a satellite deployment mission, marking the first in-space test of a key habitat-building technology.

All this is due to be done under the umbrella of SpaceX’s SmallSat Rideshare Program, which promises to provide a regular route to space for small satellites.

The hardware for Texas-based Nanoracks’ first in-space outpost demonstration mission is due to ride aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in late 2020. If the demonstration works, that would mark a significant step forward for Nanoracks’ plan to convert spent rocket stages into outposts for Earth orbit and deep space.

GeekWire was the first to report on Nanoracks’ outpost concept, more than a year and a half ago. The concept envisions setting construction robots loose inside a rocket’s upper stage, such as the Centaur stage of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5, after its fuel has been expended.

The robots would retrofit the upper stage and its fuel tanks to accommodate an air lock, storage space and even accommodations for human occupants. Nanoracks has offered the concept for consideration in NASA’s NextSTEP-2 space habitat initiative.

Nanoracks’ NASA-funded demonstration is meant to show that a robot built by one of its NextSTEP-2 teammates, Maxar Technologies, can cut samples of second-stage tank material safely and efficiently in space.

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NanoRacks names its space outpost team

Orbital outpost
An artist’s conception shows a Centaur upper-stage booster that’s been outfitted to become an orbital outpost. (NanoRacks Illustration)

It takes a village to raise an space outpost, and NanoRacks’ array of villagers includes Stratolaunch as well as Olis Robotics, the startup formerly known as BluHaptics.

NanoRacks, which is headquartered in Texas, today listed those two Seattle-based companies among its partners for a NASA-funded study focusing on the future of commercial human spaceflight in low Earth orbit.

The study is one of 13 that were commissioned by NASA in August as part of its drive to commercialize orbital operations by 2025. That drive could involve handing over the U.S. segment of the International Space Station to private-sector management, or developing brand-new orbital platforms.

NanoRacks has proposed retrofitting the spent upper stages from United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rockets and its yet-to-be-built Vulcan rockets to create habitable outposts. The company unveiled its plan for the first outpost, dubbed Independence-1, in April.

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NanoRacks plans to turn rockets into space outposts

NanoRacks space outpost
Artwork shows a Centaur upper stage that’s been converted into an outpost. (NanoRacks Illustration)

Don’t call them commercial space stations, or gateways, or portals. NanoRacks is laying claim to a different moniker for its new breed of refurbished orbital modules.

“We like ‘outposts,’” NanoRacks CEO Jeffrey Manber told GeekWire.

The space outposts that Manber has in mind, at least to start out with, are converted Centaur upper stages — the rocket boosters that sit atop the first stage of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket.

NanoRacks’ concept calls for refurbishing the insides of a Centaur upper stage after it’s finished delivering an Atlas payload to its proper orbit, so that it can be reused as an orbital habitat. The work could be done by a crew on the International Space Station, or by a robot.

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Space station to get first commercial portal

NanoRacks Airlock Module
In this artist’s conception, NanoRacks’ airlock module is the knobby-looking hardware attached to a port on the International Space Station’s Tranquility module. (NanoRacks Illustration)

NASA has accepted a plan from a private venture called NanoRacks to provide the International Space Station with an air lock that would serve as its first commercial portal.

The plan could serve as the model for the eventual development of entire space stations backed by the private sector.

The NanoRacks Airlock Module is to be developed in cooperation with Boeing and could be fitted to the station’s Tranquility module by as early as 2019, NASA and Houston-based NanoRacks said today in a pair of announcements.

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Blue Origin plans research spaceflights in 2016

Image: New Shepard launch
Blue Origin’s prototype suborbital spaceship rises from its launch pad in April. (Blue Origin photo)

Blue Origin, the space venture backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is reportedly planning to start flying research payloads on its New Shepard suborbital space vehicle as early as the first half of 2016.

“We’re aiming for the second quarter of next year,” Space News quoted Erika Wagner, business development manager for Blue Origin, as saying on Tuesday at a workshop in Washington, D.C. The workshop on microgravity research was organized by NanoRacks, a Houston-based company that’s partnering with Blue Origin to fly scientific experiments on New Shepard.

Blue Origin, which is headquartered in Kent, Wash., has been putting New Shepard through a series of uncrewed flight tests at the company’s West Texas launch facility. The most recent test took place in April. The rocket-powered vehicle rose to a height of 307,000 feet – and although the propulsion module couldn’t be recovered as hoped, due to a hydraulic problem, the crew capsule made a flawless parachute landing.

“Any astronauts on board would have had a very nice journey into space and a smooth return,” Bezos said at the time.

Blue Origin says the next test flight could take place by the end of the year.

Like the test flights, the research flights would be launched without a crew. Instead, standard-size payload lockers would be loaded aboard New Shepard, sent up on a flight rising above 100 kilometers (62 miles) that would involve about three minutes of weightlessness, and then be recovered after landing.

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