According to Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and other tycoons of the aerospace sector, reusability is the next and compulsory technology in the world of spacecraft design – well, if we want to sustain a human presence in space. Therefore, it is no surprise that NASA has picked up the baton and is now investigating the reusability of its space vehicles. Repurposing space vehicles, whatever next?
NASA reacts to changing markets
Under NASA’s investment, the concept is called Ixion and will be a joint contract with NanoRacks, a provider of aerospace services, and two other private firms. The contract involves an initial $10 million investment to investigate the feasibility of turning the rocket tanks into operational labs. The goal is to repurpose the spent launch vehicle’s upper section, which is usually discarded after one use and left to orbit or forced to enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up .
The tanks represent a considerable investment by NASA, and are widely available, so using them as new habitats for the space station will save costs and decrease space debris. The cost of assembling new habitats in space will also be avoided and there is the possibility to push them further out into space, possibly to act as a stepping stone to longer missions. Step forward the planned population of Mars and repurposing space vehicles!
Ixion up for the challenge of repurposing space vehicles
The Ixion team is up for the challenge, even offering a demonstration of the once-achieved technology through the Centaur rocket stage, made by United Launch Alliance. It is currently used on NASA’s ATLAS V and is due to be used on Vulcan thereafter.
For now, Nanoracks is focused on developing the concept further and creating a prototype on the ground. After that, the team will try to refurbish a tank within one of the upper stages made by the United Launch Alliance, called Centaur. This stage is currently used on the Atlas V rocket and will be used on the company’s next vehicle, Vulcan. According to the expectations within Ixion, this tank will by then be turned into an operational unit that could be attached to the ISS. It will then be leveraged as the grounded proof the concept on paper meets reality and is achievable.
There is also the option of leaving it with the ISS in order to create a commercial space station. NanoRacks is confident that the Ixion initiative will usher in the age of low-cost space travel in low Earth orbit and a reusability trend, paving the way to easier spaceflights and deep space habitats.
‘This innovative approach offers a pathway that is more affordable and involves less risk than fabricating modules on the ground and subsequently launching them into orbit,’ Jeff Manber, founder and CEO of NanoRacks, says. NanoRacks has been extremely successful with its NASA missions – with 350 payloads delivered to the ISS and the deployment of over 131 satellites. Any success in repurposing space vehicles could potentially save billions of dollars in the future.