Nanoracks, Voyager Space, and Lockheed Martin just announced that they aim to launch the first-ever free-flying commercial space station into low Earth orbit (LEO) by 2027 as part of a collaboration with NASA, a press statement reveals.
The space station, called Starlab, will be used for conducting critical research, ensuring continuous U.S. presence in low Earth orbit, and also for "tourism and other commercial and business activities," Lockheed Martin explains. The fact that the space station is free-flying means that it will not be locked into one orbital position.
Space stations go private
According to Nanoracks' Starlab webpage, the space station will feature a habitat module with 12,000 cubic feet (340 cubic meters) of internal volume a capacity for four people, as well as a laboratory setup and an external robotic arm and a payload capability equivalent to that of the ISS at 776 cubic feet (22 cubic meters).
The news comes as the International Space Station (ISS) comes nearer to the end of its lifecycle. International agreements on the operation of the ISS expire in 2024, and Russia has hinted that it may not renew its agreements with the U.S. as it plans to build its own space station by 2025. Though Starlab won't be an out-and-out replacement for the ISS, it is in line with NASA's penchant for private collaborations, such as its fruitful partnership with SpaceX, which saw crewed launches to the ISS return to American soil last year for the first time in almost a decade.
The private space station will 'fully unlock market demand'
Nanoracks explains that, as one of its customers, NASA will receive "comparable research capability and volume to the ISS, but at significantly lower construction and operational costs. This enables NASA to invest further in missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond."
"Since the beginning, Nanoracks has sought to own and operate a private space station to fully unlock market demand," says Jeffrey Manber, CEO and Co-Founder of Nanoracks. "Our team has spent the last decade learning the business of space stations, understanding customer needs, charting market growth, and self-investing in private hardware on the ISS like the Bishop Airlock. Nanoracks and our team are excited to work with NASA and our friends across the world as we move forward with Starlab."
Last month, Nanoracks also revealed that technology it has developed for space farm outposts could also be used on deserts here on Earth to meet the increasing demand for robust crop solutions amid the adverse effects of climate change on agriculture. Nanoracks, Voyager Space, and Lockheed Martin aren't the only firms aiming to send private space stations into low Earth orbit. According to CNBC, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin was recently in the market for an orbital habitat developer, though the company may have to stop arguing with NASA to improve its chances of making it to orbit.