Nasa is partnering with six companies to build prototypes of space habitats

Nasa is partnering with Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, NanoRacks and Sierra Nevada Corporation to build space habitats.

Nasa is partnering with six companies to build on ground full scale prototypes and concepts of human space habitats. The habitats are all orbital, space or deep space based, and are not meant to be used on a surface of a planet or a moon. Nasa is investing $65 million initially (Approximately Rs 433 Crore), with more investment planned further down the line. The companies that Nasa has partnered with are expected to bear 30 per cent of the cost. The companies are Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas, Boeing from Pasadena in Texas, Lockheed Martin of Denver, Orbital ATK of Dulles in Virginia, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems of Louisville in Colorado and NanoRacks of Webster in Texas.

Bigelow Aerospace: Bigelow Aerospace will develop the Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement (XBASE). The Xbase is an expandable habitat that is meant to be attached as a visiting module to existing space stations. The module will use technologies and techniques learnt after the recent successful deployment of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM)  at the ISS. the modules can potentially be used for stations in low earth orbit as well as deep space. The Xbase is being tested for commercial uses in the low earth orbit usage scenario. Multiple capsules of these kind can be strung together. The Xbase habitat is 330 cubic meters. The Xbase will be based on Bigelow's B330 module, which is being developed for research purposes, space manufacturing projects, missions to Mars or the Moon, and even Space Hotels.

Two Bigellow B330 modules strung together

Two Bigellow B330 modules strung together. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

Boeing: Boeing is developing a modular habitat that is designed to be assembled in orbit. The capsule will be used to assess how humans can live and work in space for extended periods of time. The full scale prototype will be used to test interface standards, system functionality and critical technologies. The habitats are low cost, and very simple. They can be modified for deep space use in long term missions. The full sized module will act as a high fidelity test bed for routine functions of both crew and technologies. Boeing will be leveraging its experience in designing, building and maintaining the International Space Station for fifteen years for developing this modular habitat.

Boeing's prototype habitation module. Credit: Boeing

Boeing's prototype habitation module. Credit: Boeing

Lockheed Martin: Lockheed Martin is developing a logistics module that will be used with the Orion spacecraft. The Orion spacecraft is meant for resupplying the International Space Station, and ferrying crew to and from it. The Orion spacecraft is also designed for longer duration missions, including any potential Mars missions. The supply module from Lockheed Martin can be used for ferrying crew and equipment to any potential deep space habitats. The main component within the multi-purpose logistics module is the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS). The logistics module is also expected to provide communication support to the Orion spacecraft, as well as deep space habitats.

Concept of Lockheed Martin's NextSTEP-2 habitat with Orion.

Concept of Lockheed Martin's NextSTEP-2 habitat with Orion. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Orbital ATK: Orbital ATK makes the cargo supply ships for the International Space Station in the form of the Cygnus Spacecraft. The Cygnus Spacecraft will be the basis of the new prototype that Orbital ATK will develop, to be used in tandem with the Orion Spacecraft and other deep space modules. The interfaces between these modules will be tested. The cargo supply spacecraft derived design will be modified and tested for deep space exploration. It will also be modified to accommodate human spacefarers. The prototype will be used to come up with a road map that will lead to a long term mission to Mars.

Concept of Orbital ATK's cislunar Habitat based on Cygnus Credit: Orbital ATK

Concept of Orbital ATK's cislunar Habitat based on Cygnus Credit: Orbital ATK

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems: Sierra Nevada Corporation's Space Systems is also a cargo resupplier to the International Space Station. Both pressurised and unpressurised cargo is ferried in modules on board the Dream Chaser spaceplane. This is basically an unmanned reusable space vehicle. The habitat is based on the cargo module used for the ISS resupply. This habitat is being fine tuned to work with inflatable habitats simlar to the one being prototyped by Bigelow Aerospace, as well as the ECLSS module from Lockheed Martin. One of the objectives of the prototype is to make sure all the critical sub systems work seamlessly when assembled together. This habitat has a modular design. The key technology being tested is building a long term space habitat over three or four consecutive launches.


Sierra Nevada Corporation's habitat module concept based on its cargo module. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

NanoRacks: This habitat is being developed by NanoRacks with a partnership with two other companies, Space Systems Loral and United Launch Alliance. The efforts are combined under the name "Ixion." This is a cutting edge attempt at some outer space jugaad. The attempt is a feasibility study, to check how to re-purpose the propellant tanks of existing launch vehicles, into a habitat that can be occupied by humans. The propellant segment is called an upper stage in launch vehicles, and this is usually discarded after the propellant is used up to launch the vehicle. This is a cost saving measure, if it works, and can be used with many rocket systems.


Concept of re-purposing the propellant segment into a habitat. Credit: NanoRacks

If you have been noticing the moon on the edges of the images, then that is the region that Nasa wants to dominate in the next stage of the space race. The idea is to explore outward from the low earth orbit of the International Space Station, to the region covered by the orbit of the moon around the earth. This region is called cislunar space. All the habitats that Nasa is developing is designed for cislunar space as well as any eventual explorations towards Mars.

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