Nanoracks Selected for NASA Grant to Advance Outpost Work

A rendering showing greenhouses inside a StarLab Outpost. (Credit: Nanoracks/Mack Crawford)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA has selected Nanoracks for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to outfit its upper stage Outposts to provide data services for other space vehicles.

Nanoracks is developing a modular hardware bus known as a Mission Extension Kit (MEK) that will convert upper stage boosters into Outposts after they have deployed their payloads. The MEK will provide power, pointing, data down/uplink, and maneuvering capabilities to the stage.

“Nanoracks proposes undertaking a study to pursue a new path of Outpost concepts of operations: localized data services for distributed space vehicles,” the proposal abstract said. “This Phase I study will develop a theoretical framework for accomplishing identified and prioritized missions and will demonstrate feasibility for required technological development or integration….

“In a follow-on Phase II, Nanoracks expects to demonstrate a prototype capability onboard a suitable ground testbed, followed by a Phase III flight demonstration of the capability. The ultimate goal of this effort are regular flight missions of an operational Outpost capable of providing services in support of the identified missions,” the abstract added.

The SBIR Phase I award is worth up to $125,000 for six months. A summary of the proposal follows.

SBIR PHASE I AWARD
Amount: up to $125,000
Duration: 6 months

Using Autonomous Outposts as Data Relays
to Support Distributed Spacecraft
Subtopic Title: Communications and Navigation
for Distributed Small Spacecraft Beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO)

Nanoracks, LLC
Webster, TX

Principal Investigator: Michael Lewis      

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 2
End: 3

Technical Abstract

Distributed small space vehicles, cooperating in a dynamic environment, are critical for the success of planetary exploration within the next decade. However, the effectiveness of these distributed vehicle swarms will be limited by two factors – the size of the individual vehicles (which will determine onboard data relay capabilities) and their distance from the command centers on Earth. The existence of flexible, rapid, low-cost platforms in the cislunar and translunar environments can increase the resiliency and effectiveness of exploratory mission designs by providing a localized area network capacity for communication, PNT, and data relay back to Earth. 

Nanoracks is currently developing a technological capability which will enable such an integrated solution by repurposing launch vehicle upper stages by attaching a modular hardware bus, or Mission Extension Kit (MEK). After primary payload deployment, the MEK takes over control of the upper stage, providing power, pointing, data down/uplink, and maneuver capabilities. The upper stage becomes an Outpost.

Nanoracks proposes undertaking a study to pursue a new path of Outpost concepts of operations: localized data services for distributed space vehicles. This Phase I study will develop a theoretical framework for accomplishing identified and prioritized missions and will demonstrate feasibility for required technological development or integration. The study will provide research results which clearly depict metrics and performance of the technology in comparison to existing solutions.

In a follow-on Phase II, Nanoracks expects to demonstrate a prototype capability onboard a suitable ground testbed, followed by a Phase III flight demonstration of the capability. The ultimate goal of this effort are regular flight missions of an operational Outpost capable of providing services in support of the identified missions.

Potential NASA Applications

This study is designed to address specific Outpost capabilities which can support localized data services for distributed space vehicles to support NASA’s exploration goals, to inform the initial development of an Outpost as a robust orbital data relay platform. An Outpost with capabilities can also provide autonomous “carrier” capabilities to vehicles, including refueling, repair, component storage, cargo exchange, and localized PNT/command/data/communication relays.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Nanoracks’ MEK is designed to turn Outposts into key platforms for the future orbital ecosystem. Outposts located in LEO/GEO will provide payload hosting services, refueling, repair, and other robotically enabled services, and host OSAM activities. Outposts also can serve as distributed network nodes for communications or PNT. Nanoracks hopes to begin development of such systems within this study.