New Frontiers: space stations, the Lunar Pathfinder and orbit refuelling

by | Jun 26, 2023 | exploration, Seradata News, Technology

Voyager Space’s new space station will be launched as one item, Skylab-style, rather than being expensively completed in orbit as more recent space stations have been, chief revenue officer Clay Mowry told the Seradata Space Conference in London on 20 June. Mowry’s comments came during the final panel discussion, entitled “New Frontiers”.

Despite the plan to reduce costs, by avoiding completing the station in orbit, Mowry still wondered if more construction costs would be incurred by the project because there was not enough insurance capacity to cover large space stations such as Starlab. The multi-billion-dollar asset in space will be four times the size of the current International Space Station. It will measure 7-8 m in diameter, giving it a valid claim to its nickname as the “Son of Skylab”, referring to the 6.7 m diameter stand-alone space station of the early 1970s.

The available capacity for a single insured asset was noted as US$800 million by Mowry, or US$900 million according to Benjamin Weber of Partner Re. Either way, it fell far short of the US$3.5 billion of cover Mowry reckoned would be needed for Starlab. Thus, while there would be enough to cover relaunch costs, Voyager Space would still have to make expensive ground spares. The issue was starting to be taken seriously, with NASA undertaking a study on how to insure a commercial station, Mowry added.

Starlab space station Courtesy: Voyager Space

While some (especially Elon Musk) have set their sights on Mars as the ultimate destination in this century, other space industry executives know that the Moon is where the money is, in the near term. Sophie Bywater, of SSTL, referred to a PwC prediction that the lunar economy could be worth US$170 billion by 2040, in her presentation at the conference. But solid communications with Earth would be key. SSTL’s lunar data relay satellite, the ESA-sponsored Lunar Pathfinder, would be essential to get communications to the far side of the Moon, Bywater said. It is expected to be launched in 2025 and will offer 4mbps S-band and UHF links to lunar assets on the surface and in orbit around the Moon, and a 5mpbs X-band link to Earth.

Diagram of Lunar Pathfinder Courtesy: SSTL

Orbital refuelling is another perennial favourite for space conferences and some significant moves are taking place in the UK. While some in the industry doubt whether there is a real use for the technology for commercial spacecraft – especially as they shift towards electric propulsion – the US military wants fast-moving spacecraft that can manoeuvre around the geostationary orbital arc at will. And to do that they need a lot of propellants.

To help them, Manny Shar said his company, UK-based Orbit Fab, was developing its RAFTI refuelling port technology, which would be demonstrated on a US military sponsored mission.

Space Forge, another British firm, is developing other technologies for both military and commercial sectors, including a new re-entry prediction system dubbed Aether, and a new re-entry system to be used for small cargo and test items. The system is called Pridwen.

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