A startup is building an in-space manufacturing platform that could attach to Starship
In-space manufacturing will form a massive part of the future of space exploration as it massively reduces the cost of launching otherwise fully-built structures to orbit and beyond.
ThinkOrbital is developing an orbital platform that could eventually be used to manufacture products in space and also tackle the growing space debris problem, as per a report from SpaceNews.
Not only that, one of its co-founders says it could be compatible with SpaceX's in-development fully reusable Starship rocket, which could eventually take humans to Mars.
An in-space manufacturing station
ThinkOrbital actually submitted its design as a proposal for a NASA bid for new space station concepts last year. It lost out, however, with NASA awarding $415.6 million to Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman. That's not to say Colorado-based ThinkOrbital isn't still aiming to reach orbit. The company has since refined its concept.
The startup's platform, called ThinkPlatform, is envisioned as a non-pressurized, free-flying module that could dock with a space station or a spacecraft, such as SpaceX's Starship. Though it missed out on a lucrative NASA contract, ThinkOrbital did recently secure two research contracts worth $260,000 under the U.S. Space Force Orbital Prime’s program for in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing.
"This platform can be for manufacturing, human habitation, military applications, and whatnot," ThinkOrbital's co-founder and president Lee Rosen told SpaceNews in an interview. "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."
The ThinkPlatform would, itself, be assembled in space using robotic arm technology. As Rosen pointed out, this technology already exists, though it would need to be upgraded so it can autonomously build the platform in space. "We want to do an inflight demo so we have the data ourselves. But we’re confident that it works," Rosen added.
Manufacturing pharmaceuticals in space
If it does reach orbit, ThinkPlatform could be used to manufacture high-speed computer chips, pharmaceutical products, and fiber optics for the public and private sectors, according to Rosen. The platform could also deploy small satellites to collect space junk and either recycle it and turn it into fuel or deorbit it so that it burns up in the atmosphere.
With #OSAM recently featuring in the Whitehouse’s Critical Technologies list, we are excited about our application to @SpaceWERXDOD | @SpaceForceDoD #OrbitalPrime. Orb2 provides a thermally stable, electromagnetically shielded & secure environment to perform OSAM activities. pic.twitter.com/rXT18O4l0e— ThinkOrbital (@ThinkOrbital) March 1, 2022
"We could process debris at that hub, for example, and turn aluminum into an aluminum powder that could be used for spacecraft fuel," explained to SpaceNews.
With the International Space Station (ISS) set to deorbit around 2030, NASA is looking to the private space sector to build the next generation of orbital stations. Though ThinkOrbital hasn't bagged a NASA contract, it forms an important part of the private space sector that is constantly innovating and bringing new solutions to orbit.
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