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Orbital stations: the past and the future
The International Space Station has its own service life. At some point, it will become more difficult and expensive to maintain the station than to make a new one. What is next?
We have all heard about the International Space Station (ISS). However, what you probably don't know is that the first mentions of an object remotely resembling the space station were in Edward Everett Hale's 1869 "The Brick Moon". Then, two brilliant scientists - Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Hermann Oberth - were the first to actually consider the scientific possibility of space stations in the early 20th century. Eventually, the ISS was launched in 2000 - nearly 100 years after the first theoretical concepts were proposed.
This week, some of our readers will be celebrating Thanksgiving which is often associated with the hope of prosperity and a new, fair society. Tsiolkovsky believed that space exploration should be guided by the same principles.
How were the first orbital stations born?
The Mir station was operated by the USSR and Russia from 1986 to 2001. It was the world's first multi-module space station. This confirmed the technological possibility of assembling large objects in space from modules, which is important for a comfortable human stay. Instead of large rockets and huge stations, it became possible to construct it with smaller rockets with separate station modules. Due to the lack of funding and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States helped to complete the Mir station - the last 2 modules of the station were funded by NASA.
The next station was the ISS. It has been in operation for almost 25 years, it is the most grandiose human structure in space, which has made a considerable contribution to science and technology. Its mass is 400 tons and it is as large as a football field that hovers at an altitude of 450 km.
A lot of experiments are being conducted on space stations including microgravity, the effect of weightlessness on humans as well as the development of new materials and technologies.
What plans do the space agencies have?
The ISS, like any technical device, has its own service life. At some point, it will become more difficult and more expensive to maintain the station than to make a new one.
Humanity has already learned to live on near-Earth orbital stations therefore it's time to move on. The world Space community plans to build a lunar orbital station - The Lunar Gateway. The program is led by NASA with the participation of partners from the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, and the Japanese Space Agency as part of the Artemis lunar program. The Gateway will remain in orbit for more than a decade, providing a place to live and work, as well as supporting long-term scientific research and human exploration on and around the moon.
China is progressing with its own orbital station. China’s space programme has recently completed the construction of its Tiangong-3 orbital station. It is intended for scientific research and will be inhabited permanently - there are 3 people currently staying there.
Next year, China plans to launch the Xuntian space telescope into orbit, which will rotate synchronously with the station separately from it, but will be able to dock from time to time to the service station. Why not attach the telescope to the station on a permanent basis? As the station is constantly vibrating and taikonauts are moving in it, this will cause interference with observations.
What about private orbital stations?
There are several main drivers of the private orbital station market: space tourism, conducting scientific research on a private basis, and orbital station development commissioned for state space agencies.
The main difficulty is the cost of servicing orbital stations. For example, ISS service costs about $3 billion a year. However, the profit from the commercial projects is not yet enough to cover these costs.
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Despite this, relying on successful initiatives to partner with the private sector for cargo delivery, NASA has signed agreements with three companies to develop designs for space stations and other commercial destinations in space. The total estimated award amount for all three funded Space Act Agreements is $415.6 million. The companies that received awards are:
The purpose of these stations is similar - the station’s shared infrastructure will support the proprietary needs of diverse U.S. and international users, tenants, and visitors, including those representing research, industry, government, and the commercial sector. Features such as reusable space transportation and advanced automation can minimize cost and complexity to enable the widest range of users.
In addition to these new awards, NASA selected Axiom Space (funded in round B $150M from 24 investors) in January 2020 to design and develop commercial modules to attach to the ISS. NASA and Axiom recently completed the preliminary design review of two modules as well as the critical design review of the module’s primary structure. In April 2022, Axiom Space launched the first all-private crew to the ISS and the module to ISS will be launched in 2025.
Apart from space stations, the market for non-human space infrastructure is developing too - new companies are emerging to offer private space labs such as Varda or robotics-driven infrastructure such as ThinkOrbital. Please feel free to reach out if you want to deep dive into this market too.
There have been commercial projects of stations before - the private Bigelow module is already on the ISS. The market of private orbital stations is developing very actively. NASA readily stimulates the market with its grants. Scientific research in space will be more accessible - there is no longer a need to wait years in line for your research on the ISS. This means that the price of space experimentation will also fall and many new companies will be able to conduct their zero-gravity research. We hope that with the increase in the number of space use cases we will see a lot of new inventions coming from space to improve life on Earth. Do you want to brainstorm which research your company can do in orbit? Please email email@example.com.
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