Study to explore viability of robot-built space outposts made from debris

NanoRacks wants to build commercial habitats in space out of orbiting junk, and NASA is onboard.

There's a lot of perfectly good space junk floating around up there, such as the upper stages of spent rockets. NanoRacks, a company dedicated to democratizing low-earth orbit by supporting innovations like cheap, easily deployed CubeSats, wants to use those in-space structures to build habitats known as Outposts. The Outposts could prove to be crucial infrastructure for commercial space travel and exploration.

Naturally, the heavy lifting -- er, weightless shifting -- will fall to robots.

Sounds a little far-fetched, to be sure, but NASA is getting behind the idea. The space agency recently chose NanoRacks as one of 13 companies involved in a study of commercial human spaceflight in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). This week, NanoRacks shared some details about its Space Outpost Program and identified strategic study partners supporting its efforts, including Olis Robotics, which makes remote robotics software.

"This team is unprecedented," says NanoRacks Commerce Director and Principal Investigator for the LEO Commercialization Study, Adrian Mangiuca. "We have experts across the aerospace industry contributing innovative technology and business concepts, all for one collaborative program."

Outposts, as envisioned by NanoRacks, could have a number of commercial and public interest uses, including as research stations or fuel depots. They might also serve as space hotels or payload storage warehouses.

Late last year, NanoRacks, along with partners including SSL, a manufacturing subsidiary of Maxar Technologies Company, Altius Space, and Space Adventures, demonstrated to NASA that it was technically feasible to repurpose a spent second stage of a rocket.

It's a clever bit of recycling. The structures are air tight and constructed to withstand the rigors of space. Reusing pre-existing structures also eliminates the challenge and expense of launching building materials into orbit. The concept was originally dreamed up by NASA in the 1960s but has never been deployed.

SSL demonstrated that robots could be used to retrofit the upper stages of spent rockets, as illustrated in the embedded video.

Aside from the technological challenges inherent in using robots to repurpose discarded portions of launch vehicles, numerous policy and contractual issues will have to be sorted out before the concept can become a reality. NanoRacks is staffing an internal LEO commercialization team to help define those issues.