Nano racks just made space construction and manufacturing history with the first on-orbit metal cutting demonstration. The technique could be critical to the next generation of large-scale space stations and even lunar habitats.
The experiment was conducted in May by Nanoracks and its parent company Voyager Space after reaching orbit aboard the SpaceX Transporter 5 launch vehicle. The company only recently released additional details on Friday.
The goal of the Outpost Mars Demo-1 mission was to cut a piece of corrosion-resistant metal, similar to the outer shell of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur and commonly found in space debris, using a technique called friction milling.
Welding and cutting metal is a messy operation on Earth, but all that dust and debris just falls to the ground. However, “when you’re in space, in the vacuum, that’s not really the case. It doesn’t just float off necessarily,” Marshall Smith, Nanoracks’ senior vice president of space systems, told TechCrunch in May. “What you want to do is limit that debris, not necessarily because it could be a micrometeorite problem, which it could be, but mostly because you want to keep your work environment clean.”
The entire demonstration lasted about one minute. The main objective – to cut a small sample of the steel – was successfully accomplished. Inside the spacecraft were two additional samples to cut as a “target to reach” and Nanoracks is investigating why they weren’t cut as well.
It was held in partnership with Maxar Technologies, who developed the robotic arm that performed the cutting. This arm used a commercially available friction milling end effector and the entire structure was contained within the Outpost spacecraft to ensure no debris would escape. Indeed, one of the main aims of the demonstration was to produce no debris – and it worked.
Nanoracks uses a type of metal similar to a rocket’s upper stage, precisely because the company’s long-term goal is to modify used upper stages and turn them into orbital platforms, or what it calls “outposts.”
“We’re constantly releasing upper stages,” Smith said. “Imagine in the long run, you can go get one. two, three, four of these and push them around so they’re in contact with each other and you can join them together and create large structures that can be used for a number of options.
According to Smith, this is just the beginning. In the future, Nanoracks will attempt to downsize on a larger scale in its quest to eventually carry out larger construction efforts.
In addition to the Outpost program, Nanoracks and Voyager partner with Lockheed Martin to develop a commercial space station, which the group calls Starlab. NASA has selected the group to further develop its plans for the agency’s Low Earth Orbit Commercial Destinations Program for a $160 million contract. Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman were also awarded contracts.