ThinkOrbital has big plans for low Earth orbit, designing an orbital platform that could be used to manufacture products in space, as well as remove and recycle space debris.
The spherical structure, which was named the ThinkPlatform, would be a free-flying, non-pressurized platform that would either operate as part of a larger commercial station or it could dock with a spacecraft like SpaceX’s Starship, Lee Rosen, ThinkOrbital’s co-founder, president and chief strategy officer, told SpaceNews in an interview published Monday.
Last year, NASA rejected ThinkOrbital’s commercial space station concept. Instead, the space agency awarded $415.6 million for space station proposals from Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman. But the Colorado-based company is still vying for a spot in low Earth orbit, and Rosen believes that ThinkOrbital’s new concept is more viable.
The ThinkPlatform would be assembled in space with the help of a robotic arm. The technology needed to build the ThinkPlatform already exists, but needs to be engineered to be autonomous, Rosen told SpaceNews.
“This platform can be for manufacturing, human habitation, military applications and whatnot,” Rosen told SpaceNews. “And the good news is we don’t have to bend any physics to make it happen. In-space electron beam welding was demonstrated by the Soviets in the 80s so we know it works.”
“We want to do an inflight demo so we have the data ourselves. But we’re confident that it works,” he added.
ThinkPlatform would be used to manufacture high-speed computer chips, fiber optics or pharmaceutical products for the public and private sector, according to Rosen. The platform could also be used to send out small satellites to collect space junk floating around in orbit, and either recycle it by turning it into fuel or deorbit it. “We could process debris at that hub, for example, and turn aluminum into aluminum powder that could be used for spacecraft fuel,” Rosen told SpaceNews.
The company recently secured two research contracts worth $260,000 under the U.S. Space Force Orbital Prime’s program for in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing.
Private space companies are hoping to establish a presence in low Earth orbit, fostering commercial activity in space that could include manufacturing, as well as space tourism. The International Space Station is due to retire in 2030, leaving behind some pretty big orbital shoes to fill, which will likely be taken over by the space industry’s commercial partners.