A Space Station For All
Commercial Use of Space Stations
Earlier this year, both NASA and the Chinese equivalent (CMSA) announced that they would be opening their respective space stations up for commercial use. The International Space Station (ISS), which is actively managed by NASA, is now scheduled to be deorbited at the end of 2030. CNet reports that as NASA and its international partners begin to wind down their activities onboard the orbiting laboratory in the next few years, space will be made available for commercial operations to take place in the latter half of the 2020s.
Subsequently, it was reported by Space News that China has announced that upon completion of its Tianhe space station, the private sector will be encouraged to utilize the station to “engage with space”. This announcement indicates that China is willing to open its space platform up to commercial activities, similar to the plans that NASA has put into place.
Current Commercial Use
Currently, the ISS plays host to some commercial activities in the form of experiments. These are part of NASA’s shift toward using private industry to advance the U.S.’s space exploration capabilities. An example of this shift to commercialization is the sequence of On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM) missions, which seeks to provide servicing capabilities to satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO). Many of these technologies, which are to be developed in partnership with private companies, will be tested on the ISS prior to being applied to servicing satellites in other orbits.
NASA has been partnering with a number of companies around the world for several years to make it possible for universities and other organizations to take advantage of the microgravity environment onboard the ISS. And with the announcement by the Chinese CMAS, a new avenue has been identified for these organizations to take advantage of that same environment once the Tianhe space station is completed.
The Role of Private Companies in Space
To date, NASA has worked closely with companies like SpaceX, Boeing, and United Launch Alliance to provide access to space. With the government mandate to continue taking advantage of the capabilities provided by private companies, NASA is beginning to expand the number and scope of contracts for spaceflight-related hardware and activities. And as commercial activities onboard the ISS begin to ramp up in the next few years, those partnerships will play an increasing role in the U.S.’s space-based activities.
The OSAM missions are being developed in partnership with private companies to enable the advancement of key technologies to provide automated in-space manufacturing and servicing. At this time, two OSAM missions have been scheduled, with additional missions anticipated. These missions continue to enable NASA’s commitment to the privatization of space exploration into and beyond the 2030s, with Motiv Space Systems contributing to each mission’s engineering capability.
Currently scheduled to be launched in 2024, the OSAM-1 mission will demonstrate the ability to perform on-orbit servicing of a satellite. A key component of this mission is Motiv Space Systems’s motion control technology. The mission will be using robotic systems driven by Motiv’s high-power motor controller to perform satellite servicing. By demonstrating these technologies, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the commercial partners (including Motiv Space Systems) will be laying the groundwork for future commercial ventures that will expand the scope of the space service industry in the U.S.
Prior to the OSAM-1 mission, the OSAM-2 mission will launch in 2023. The goal of this mission will be to assemble a 3D-printed solar array in LEO. To make this mission a success, Motiv Space Systems will be providing an xLink robotic arm that will configure the printing module and deploy the solar array as it is built. Seen as a key demonstration flight for the ability to perform robotic manufacturing in LEO, the mission will provide engineers on Earth with key insights into developing future missions beyond Earth orbit.
As NASA continues to partner with private companies like Motiv, critical technologies are being developed and flown in space. With the OSAM series of missions, NASA is relying on private industry to achieve success at LEO and beyond. The technologies engineered by Motiv Space Systems are enabling the success of the OSAM missions and providing NASA and other companies with key pieces of technology that can be applied to a variety of space-based applications and scenarios.
The advantages that long-term space-based platforms such as the ISS and the Tianhe space station provide continue to enable the advancement of a variety of industries on Earth. From the development of new medicines to advanced computing technologies, the microgravity environment that is only available onboard these orbital laboratories has begun to provide companies of all sizes with a new environment in which they can perform their research. The robotics technologies engineered and built by Motiv Space Systems are playing an integral part in advancing the use of the ISS for commercial activities.
As China completes its construction of the Tianhe space station, a second platform will become available, which will drive further commercialization of space-based activities. Between the ISS and the Tianhe, companies around the world will have access to a microgravity environment for research and technology demonstrations. Over the next decade or more, the scientific and engineering advances made possible through space-based research will play a pivotal role in improving life here on Earth.
The early years of space exploration produced a number of products that are taken for granted in today’s world. However, those developments are likely to be nothing compared to what will be produced onboard space stations in the next decade. And those developments will be carried out by commercial entities through partnerships with NASA and CMSA onboard the ISS and Tianhe and other LEO orbital platforms.