Lockheed Pitches Reusable Tug for Space Station Resupply


WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin confirmed March 12 that it submitted a proposal for NASA’s commercial cargo competition, offering a system that includes a reusable tug that can be used for other applications, including supporting human missions beyond Earth orbit.

“We’re unveiling a solution that goes beyond the space station, a solution that will allow us to set the stage for a revolution in commercial exploration,” said Jim Crocker, vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin Space Systems International, in an event here to announce their system.

Jim Crocker, vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin Space Systems International, discusses his company’s commercial cargo system at an event at Washington’s Union Station March 12. Credit: SpaceNews photo by Jeff Foust

The company’s system features two key components: a reusable tug called Jupiter and a cargo module called Exoliner. Initially, the two would be launched together on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket  and berth with the International Space Station in much in the same way as existing commercial cargo vehicles.

At the end of its mission at the ISS, the cargo vehicle would depart and fly independently for weeks or months. During this time it would be able to carry out additional missions, such as the deployment of small satellites or remote sensing of the Earth.

Follow-on cargo missions would launch only Exoliner modules. Jupiter and the old Exoliner would rendezvous with the Centaur upper stage carrying the new Exoliner module, and Jupiter would use its robotic arm to swap the modules. Jupiter then returns to the ISS with the new cargo module, while the Centaur deorbits the old one.

The Jupiter tug, based on interplanetary spacecraft like the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution orbiter Lockheed helped build and launch in 2013, is designed to operate in orbit for extended periods. “In essence it has an unlimited life,” said Crocker, since the vehicle can be refueled and serviced on orbit.

Credit: Lockheed Martin
Credit: Lockheed Martin

The company did not offer specific pricing details, but emphasized what it termed the “affordability” of the system by noting that many key systems, such as sensors and other electronics, are incorporated into Jupiter and thus need to be built only once. “The expensive part of this system stays in orbit and is reused on every mission,” Crocker said.

The system can carry up to 5,000 kilograms of pressurized cargo and 1,500 kilograms of unpressurized cargo per mission, the maximum set by NASA in its Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS-2) request for proposals last September. The amount of cargo it can dispose of is limited only by the volume of the cargo container, company officials said; NASA requires a minimum of 2,500 kilograms of cargo disposal per mission.

Lockheed Martin said it is developing the cargo system with two international partners. Thales Alenia Space is providing the cargo module, based on the cargo carrier it built for Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle. Canada’s MDA Corp. is building the robotic arm for Jupiter.

All of the major components of Jupiter and Exoliner have flight heritage. “Selecting hardware that has been effectively demonstrated on the space station has got to be a solution that provides a level of comfort” to NASA, said Wanda Sigur, vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin Space Systems civil space line of business.

In addition to servicing the ISS and potential future commercial space stations, Lockheed Martin said this system could also support operations beyond Earth orbit. A Jupiter and Exoliner module could be launched, along with an Orion spacecraft, on a single Space Launch System booster, serving as a habitat and logistics module for extended stays in cislunar space.

“Although our priority is going to be servicing the ISS,” said Josh Hopkins, a Lockheed Martin space exploration architect, “we’re also designing the system from the beginning to be able to do deep space missions.”

Lockheed Martin is the latest company to confirm its bid in what has become a crowded field for the CRS-2 competition. Boeing, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada Corp. said in December that they submitted CRS-2 proposals. SpaceX, which, along with Orbital ATK, has contracts today to deliver cargo to the ISS, is widely believed to have also proposed, but the company has declined to publicly confirm that. NASA plans to select at least two companies by June.

Sierra Nevada, which lost to Boeing and SpaceX in NASA’s commercial crew competition last year, announced March 12 that it would provide details of its CRS-2 bid, called the Dream Chaser Cargo System, at a briefing here March 17.