Knowing this, the space industry is struggling to find alternatives that will allow humans to remain in orbit. By space industry, we refer primarily to the United States, which has the highest concentration of space startups anywhere on the planet.
NASA supports three projects through official agreements and funding: the Blue Origin-Sierra Space Orbital Reef, the Lockheed Martin-Nanoracks Starlab, and an unnamed Northrop Grumman concept. Axiom is another company working on a space station concept.
As most of you already know, the ISS is an international project run by the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada. With the exception of Russia, which is planning its own station, ROSS, the others will largely be left out if they do nothing.
The European Space Agency does not like this and wants to continue its presence in low orbit around the Earth, even after the ISS is gone. To that end, it thinks of something called SciHab, which stands for Science and Habitation.
Like any other station before it, it will include a “next-generation advanced laboratory and residential module”, but possibly even others. The laboratory section will house experimental hardware of various sizes and purposes, including the provision of resources, with capabilities at least on a par with Columbus, ESA’s largest single contribution to the ISS. Launched in 2008, Columbus has an outside diameter of 4.5 meters (almost 15 feet), and can support a crew of three.
SciHab, first proposed as part of the agency’s Terrae Novae 2030+ strategy roadmap, unveiled at the end of last year, is intended as a station that could piggyback on the upcoming US, or even on the ISS itself.
The housing module is what will have environmental control and life support systems, communication, sleeping stations, galley, toilet, exercise equipment and stowage.
The thing is imagined to have an open architecture, which means that hardware made by different players in the industry can be easily accommodated, and more importantly, modules can be added later depending on the need.
ESA considers this to be a very important station. It could complement the upcoming Gateway, which NASA plans to float in orbit around the Moon, and may even support the lunar surface colony that we need to create in the medium term. In addition, there are ideas being thrown around that SciHab has production capabilities in space, including assembly in orbit, and even transit technologies designed to help people on their way to Mars.
There are four ways to feed this station, imagined by the people behind the SciHab idea, most of which depend on or are inspired by what others are doing. First, it could be implemented as a temporary appendix to the ISS, just like what Axiom does, by building its station on the ISS’s front docking port and planning to float free of it sometime in the future. Then it could be created in collaboration with Orbital Reef or Starlab, “potentially with an additional contribution from a resource module as well as features like attitude and orbit control.” Third, it could even be built as part of the ISS, helping it stay afloat after the 2031 deadline.
The way that could really turn SciHab into a standalone, ESA-made space station involves building it from scratch, including with the help of international partners, and operating it just like the ISS. Europeans plan to establish one of the four ways in which SciHab can be built while the ISS is still in orbit, so that “a gap in LEO services is avoided.”
SciHab was on Request for Information status, open to “private sector entities based in ESA Member States,” until January 28, 2022, with a deadline for submitting the summary by March 31. At the time of writing, no information is available on how many companies have expressed interest.
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