Nanoracks has just made space construction and manufacturing history with the first demonstration of metal cutting in orbit. The technique could be critical for the next generation of large-scale space stations and even lunar habitats.
The experiment was carried out in May by Nanoracks and its parent company Voyager Space, after going into orbit aboard the SpaceX Transporter 5 launch. The company only recently released additional details on Friday.
The objective 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 common in space debris, using a technique called friction milling .
Welding and cutting metals is a messy operation on Earth, but all that dust and debris just falls to the ground. However, “when you’re in space, in a vacuum, it doesn’t really do that. It doesn’t necessarily float either,” Marshall Smith, senior vice president of space systems at Nanoracks, explained to TechCrunch in May. “What you want to do is contain this debris, not necessarily because it could be a micrometeor problem, which could also be the case, but mostly because you want to keep your working environment own.”
The entire demonstration lasted about a minute. The main objective – to cut a single small sample of steel – was successfully achieved. Inside the spacecraft were two more samples to be cut as a “goal to achieve”, and Nanoracks is investigating why they weren’t cut as well.
It was conducted in partnership with Maxar Technologies, which developed the robotic arm that performed the cut. This arm used a commercially available friction milling end effector, and the entire structure was contained within the Outpost spacecraft to ensure that no debris escaped. Indeed, one of the main objectives of the demonstration was to produce no debris – and it worked.
Nanoracks used a type of metal similar to a rocket upper stage precisely because the company’s long-term goal is to modify used upper stages and convert them into orbital platforms, or whatever. it calls “outposts”.
“We’re constantly throwing higher steps,” Smith said. “Imagine in the long run, you could go get one, two, three, four of them and push them around so they’re in contact with each other and you can join them together and create big structures that can be used for a number of options.
According to Smith, this is just the beginning. Going forward, Nanoracks will attempt larger scale cuts in its quest to eventually lead larger build efforts.
In addition to the Outpost program, Nanoracks and Voyager have partnered with Lockheed Martin develop a commercial space station, which the group calls Starlab. NASA selected the group to further develop its plans under the agency’s Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations program, for a contract worth $160 million. Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman also won contracts.