NanoRacks is focused on turning spent upper stages into pressurized NanoRacks Space Outposts. Credit: NanoRacks

WASHINGTON – Nanoracks is moving ahead with its plan to turn rocket second stages into Nanoracks Space Outposts thanks to an agreement with Canada’s Maritime Launch Services and an upcoming test of a critical technology.

NanoRacks announced an agreement Oct. 23 at the International Astronautical Congress here with Canada’s Maritime Launch Services to work on repurposing a spent C4M upper stage already in orbit after launch from Nova Scotia’s Canso Spaceport.

“We envision populating the solar system with efficient platforms, that can serve as hotels, research parks, fuel depots, storage centers and more,” Nanoracks CEO Jeffrey Manber said in a statement. “We are proving time and time again that there are new ways to look at how we explore deep space, and that we need to think creatively, but work cost-efficiently. This agreement with Maritime Launch will provide us with the in-orbit test bench second stage articles to do exactly that, and to grow our space industry even further.”

In addition, NanoRacks also announced plans Oct. 22 to conduct a brief but critical test  in orbit. Nanoracks plans to robotically cut a material representative of an upper stage in a self-contained hosted payload. The payload is scheduled to travel to orbit on an ESPA ring attached to an upper stage. Nanoracks declined to reveal the launch provider.

Maxar Technologies is developing an articulating robotic arm with a tool for friction milling 3,000 revolutions per minute. The high speed helps to ensure the metal melts and “globs off” rather than creating shrapnel, Adrian Mangiuca, Nanoracks commerce director, told SpaceNews at the 2019 International Astronautical Congress here. “We want to be good stewards of the orbital environment because we want to keep these Outposts up for a very long time.”

The milling technology is “one of the critical path technologies to getting us to the point where we can pressurize the enormous [liquid oxygen and hydrogen] tanks is to cut our way into those tanks on orbit,” Mangiuca said. “Of course, there are other technologies like sealing the vent holes, welding the metal back up and doing construction. But fundamental to that entire architecture is cutting.”

In 2016, NASA added a Nanoracks team that included United Launch Alliance and Maxar to its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships 2 (NextSTEP-2) program, an effort to develop space habitats. Nanoracks also is working under a 2018 NASA contract to study the commercial case for repurposing in-space hardware.

NanoRack’s agreement with Maritime Launch “further establishes the company’s commitment to innovating a more affordable and less risky pathway to establishing in-space habitats for future crewed missions instead of fabricating modules on the ground, and subsequently launching them to orbit,” according to the Nanoracks news release.

“The proven heritage of the C4M launch family, with over 220 launches to date, will provide Nanoracks with plenty of opportunities to choose the appropriate missions on which to test and develop the proposed upper stage conversions into resilient automated habitats, and one day human habitats,” Steve Matier, Maritime Launch CEO, said in a statement. “Canada has a reputation for providing in-space robotics for the International Space Station, such as the CANADARM and the Dextre programs. With Nanoracks, we hope to see this country’s legacy expanding further into economically viable space habitats, and to organize the related launch missions to bring equipment and supplies to these new working structures.”

The on-orbit cutting demonstration is likely to take 30 minutes to an hour. After the rocket deploys all payloads, “we will get the go signal and the robotic arm will start cutting,” Mangiuca said. “We will downlink all the data and hopefully videos too” as the upper stage moves on a path toward deorbit, he added.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...