COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.—NanoRacks wants to get the Defense Department on board with the company’s stash-and-deploy deploy-on-demand program designed to intermittently release satellites from the International Space Station (ISS), according to NanoRacks CEO Jeff Manber.
Manber said DoD is slowly warming to the idea, which he attributed to DoD culture more than stash-and-deploy itself, in which satellites are delivered to ISS via the soft environment of cargo capsules like Orbital ATK’s [OA] Cygnus, as opposed to on top of launch vehicles in fairings. Once the satellites arrive at ISS, they can be released to orbit at any time of the customer’s choosing. Manber said the point of stash-and-deploy is to utilize space stations rather than rockets to deploy military payloads.
It’s a new way of thinking, he said.
“They’re putting so much money into launch on demand,” Manber told Defense Daily in an April 4 interview here at the Space Symposium. “They may have a contract or program (that) they want to get into space in 14 months. Nobody yet has a program that says, ‘Sit in space for two years and deploy intermittently.’”
Manber believes stash-and-deploy also gives DoD a bit of secrecy as, for example, a military payload could be launched to ISS with 30 other satellites. A military satellite is traditionally launched as the only payload on a rocket, which allows other nations to track the launch.
Stash-and-deploy is part of a larger Manber idea of partnering on-orbit manufacturing with deploy-on-demand. Manber envisions robotics and three-dimensional manufacturing producing most of a satellite on orbit. A robot would attach a sensor and then the satellite would deploy. Manber said he wants NanoRacks to be a player in on-orbit manufacturing with deploy-on-demand in five years.
Manber believes on-orbit manufacturing and deploy-on-demand could be disruptive to the launch industry because it eliminates the “tough part” getting the payloads into space. There’s no need to worry about the range, he said, nor if rockets are ready nor if they are going to fail. Manber doesn’t see why DoD and commercial partners couldn’t keep 15 to 20 satellites on orbit and then deploy them at their choosing.
Once these satellites arrive on a space station, Manber said they could be deployed within five years, maybe after some touching up from a robot.
“That seems to be the way to go instead of launching rockets all the time,” he said.
The United States will end its involvement with the massive, government-built, international-partnered ISS in 2024. Manber envisions a post-ISS space with multiplicities of platforms, including manned, unmanned, commercial and “not-so-commericial.” NanoRacks, he said, is looking at unmanned platforms doing satellites, in-space manufacturing or earth observation.
NanoRacks was issued a NASA contract in August as part of the agency’s NextSTEP program to study converting an Atlas V upper stage into a pressurized habitable volume in space. Manber said NanoRacks could have four repurposed Centaurs in space in the next six years, all with different market niches. He said NanoRacks has targeted sensors, high-quality in-space manufacturing and in-space manufacturing of satellites and deployment on demand as target markets for his refurbished Centaur space stations.
NanoRacks is teaming with United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Space Systems Loral (SSL) on its NextSTEP contract. He said NextSTEP Stage 1 has not been signed yet. Manber said NanoRacks will also do a study with ULA and SSL on how to refurbish the second stage for ULA’s next-generation Vulcan launch system.
Manber sees, further down the road, Bob Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace potentially having his space station hotel in orbit and, perhaps, industrial factories that he said Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos has envisioned.
ULA is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing [BA].