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ThinkOrbital designing platform for in-space manufacturing, debris removal

Former SpaceX VP Lee Rosen last week was named president and chief strategy officer of ThinkOrbital
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WASHINGTON — ThinkOrbital, a space infrastructure startup, is designing an orbital platform aimed at commercial businesses, military and government agencies that want to manufacture products in orbit or recycle debris.

The Lafayette, Colorado-based company last year lost out in NASA’s competition to develop commercial space station concepts and is now working on a new product that it believes is more viable, said Lee Rosen, ThinkOrbital’s co-founder, president and chief strategy officer.

A former vice president at SpaceX, Rosen became an advisor to ThinkOrbital when the company was founded in early 2021. Last week he was named president as the company pursues plans to raise funds and demonstrate on-orbit assembly.

The technologies required to build platforms in low Earth orbit already exist, Rosen told SpaceNews. But they need to be engineered so structures can be assembled autonomously and scalable for different customers, he said. 

The company’s spherical habitat, called ThinkPlatform, would be assembled in space using a robotic arm. Rosen said it could operate as a component of a larger commercial station or docked with a space vehicle like SpaceX’s Starship.

“This platform can be for manufacturing, human habitation, military applications and whatnot,” Rosen said. “And the good news is we don’t have to bend any physics to make it happen. In-space electron beam welding was demonstrated by the Soviets in the 80s so we know it works. We want to do an inflight demo so we have the data ourselves. But we’re confident that it works.”

Earlier this year ThinkOrbital — with partners Redwire, KMI and Arizona State University — won two research contracts worth $260,000 under the U.S. Space Force Orbital Prime program for in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing. Rosen said the plan is to refine the design concept for a space structure that could be used for debris removal and recycling.

“We’re working on a hub and spoke concept where smaller satellites would go out and gather the debris, bring it back to a central location, process it and we could either turn them into fuel or deorbit them,” said Rosen. “We could process debris at that hub, for example, and turn aluminum into aluminum powder that could be used for spacecraft fuel.”

ThinkOrbital is hoping to be selected for the next phase of Orbital Prime which could be worth up to $1.5 million. 

“We hope to be able to work with the Space Force as one of the organizations that are interested in in-space manufacturing,” said Rosen.

He said the future of in-space manufacturing remains unclear but could gain momentum when commercial companies start deploying space stations in LEO. 

The expectation is that high-speed computer chips, fiber optics or pharmaceutical products will be manufactured in space, “but the reason why in-space manufacturing doesn’t exist on a large scale is because there’s nowhere to do it. They just don’t have the room on the International Space Station to do all of the things that could be done.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly...