Aerospace contractor NanoRacks has completed the 5-month Ixion long study on the feasibility of converting a launch vehicle upper stage into a functional station module. The study’s findings, presented at a panel discussion at the SpaceCom Expo on December 6, show that this so-called “wet workshop” approach is increasingly workable.
The study is part of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships 2 (NextSTEP-2) effort. In addition to NanoRacks, the partnership includes United Launch Alliance (ULA), Space Systems Loral and Space Adventures, the space tourism provider.
The Ixion study specifically examined the feasibility of converting a ULA Atlas 5 upper stage into a habitat capable of supporting life. The stage would be left in a low Earth orbit, retrofitted by a physical crew or robotically, and then either used independently or attached to a larger station. The study also examined the possibility of using an Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) from ULA’s next-generation Vulcan launch vehicle.
NASA previously examined the possibility of using a launch vehicle upper stage as habitat when developing the Skylab space station. However, it was later concluded that the technology of the time could not safely support such an endeavour.
The Ixion study is only the latest initiative by NanoRacks to lead the push for the development of commercial space habitats. Last October, NanoRacks raised an undisclosed amount to pursue the development of a commercial airlock module for ISS. The company’s focus on developing and building commercial habitats envisions a market that does not yet exist. As a result, the direction is, as NanoRacks CEO, Jeffery Manaber himself admits, “a leap of faith”.
“Every step NanoRacks takes on the International Space Station (ISS) is preparing us for building on our vision of the future – a world where launches are plentiful, the in-space destination is king – and commercial habitats and space stations populate our solar system with customers from every sector of our society,” explained Manaber in a press release back in June.
Image Credit: NanoRacks