NASA Funded R&D Projects Aim to Recycle Defunct Satellites, Upper Stages

Location of the 24,000 debris larger than 10 cm in low orbit in 2020. (Credits: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA has decided to continue funding two research and development projects aimed at recycling the enormous amount of waste humanity has deposited in Earth orbit, including spent rocket upper stages, defunct satellites and random pieces of floating debris.

NASA is providing grants worth up to $750,000 each to CisLunar Industries USA, Inc., of Denver, Colo., and Yolo Robotics of Sacramento, Calif. to continue development work on recycling technologies. The grants are being provided under the space agency’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

CisLunar has partnered with NanoRacks to develop an electromagnetic induction furnace in vacuum to produce useful materials from space debris.

“CisLunar Industries is developing an innovative engineering solution to enable the recycling of spent upper stages, satellites, and space debris, thereby transforming otherwise dangerous material into feedstock for on-orbit manufacturing. Our recycling technology will take scavenged space debris and reprocess it into standardized metal feedstock in the form of rod, wire filament, and other useful geometries,” the proposal summary said.

Yolo Robotics is also developing an induction foundry.

“At small scales, NASA can create a raw material reserve for repairs and new parts on the ISS and remote outposts,” the project summary said. “At larger scales, this technology can recycle orbital debris, convert rocket bodies, or even upcycle the ISS if otherwise deorbited. In the future, induction foundries will be a key element in cislunar and lunar infrastructure construction and operation.”

The project summaries follow.

Micro Space Foundry for On-Orbit Recycling and Metal Materials Production
Subtopic: Development of Advanced Joining Technologies, Large-Scale Additive Manufacturing Processes, and Metal Recycling Technologies for On-Orbit Manufacturing

CisLunar Industries USA, Inc.
Denver, Colo.

Phase II Grant: up to $750,000

Principal Investigator:
Name: Mr. Joseph Pawelski

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 4
End: 5

Duration: 24 months

Technical Abstract

CisLunar Industries is developing an innovative engineering solution to enable the recycling of spent upper stages, satellites, and space debris, thereby transforming otherwise dangerous material into feedstock for on-orbit manufacturing. Our recycling technology will take scavenged space debris and reprocess it into standardized metal feedstock in the form of rod, wire filament, and other useful geometries. These will be used in a variety of applications, including a metal propellant and for on-orbit servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (OSAM).

In the Phase I SBIR project we successfully demonstrated the feasibility of on-orbit recycling using an electromagnetic induction furnace in vacuum to produce useful materials from simulated cut debris. Our partner Nanoracks provided data for debris location, composition, and methods for capture and transformation of space debris into feedstock.

The results of multiple tests, both in and out of vacuum, show that ribbon and strip geometries offer numerous processing advantages over chips. The reach goal of producing metal propellant rods and testing the thrust on a Neumann Space pulsed plasma thruster was accomplished.

Hosted by the Colorado School of Mines, the CisLunar technology for propellant rod production from recycled space debris was demonstrated live with Astroscale, Nanoracks, and Neumann Space present to show how space debris can be captured, cut, recycled, and used as a spacecraft propellant.

Built upon the successful Phase I CisLunar technology, Phase II will:

  • Extend hardware to accommodate varied geometries and compositions of input materials, and form a standardized output product;
  • Develop a reconfigurable Micro Space Foundry (MSF) testbed for near-term demonstration on-orbit (e.g. ISS);
  • Mature the stated technology to TRL 5 through demonstration in relevant environments, including microgravity by means of a parabolic flight.

Potential NASA Applications

Metal foundries supply material and enable the manufacture & assembly of orbital platforms which may be used for Maintenance & Repair and assembled on orbit in proximity of other operations requiring Installation & Upgrade or frequent close inspection. Metal propellant is produced on-orbit by CisLunar’s foundries from space debris enabling high efficiency, lower cost transportation for Delivery & Aggregation, station keeping of maintenance platforms, or orbit changes. Refueling is enabled by propellant options provided by the space foundry.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The proposed technology has applicability to DoD and commercial missions for transportation, materials, and disposal of space debris. The recent announcement of Orbital Prime with a strong emphasis on debris removal and Space Sustainability demonstrates the immediate viability of the CisLunar Industries Micro Space Foundry. Astroscale, Axiom, Nanoracks, Lockheed, and others support our efforts.

In-Space Inductive Foundry: Recycling, Sorting and Casting
Subtopic: Development of Advanced Joining Technologies, Large-Scale Additive Manufacturing Processes, and Metal Recycling Technologies for On-Orbit Manufacturing

Yolo Robotics, LLC
Sacramento, Calif.

Phase II Grant: up to $750,000

Principal Investigator: Dr. John Shepard

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 3
End: 6

Duration: 18 months

Technical Abstract

Yolo Robotics LLC proposes developing the core technology for an inductive foundry to recycle, sort, and “free-cast” metals in space. The system consists of electromagnetic arrays that are independently commutated to induce heat and forces to melt and manipulate metals. This technology applies well-understood phenomena in a completely novel way for a substantial technological advance. Its compact, integrated hardware has no moving parts, an infinite workspace, and scales to match material throughput to available power.

Current state of the art recycling and manufacturing is precise but slow, static, and life limited. The inductive foundry produces basic feedstocks (ingots, bars, plates, filament) and may ultimately produce complex shapes (brackets, tools, extrusions) significantly faster than additive or subtractive manufacturing. The rough products generated by our in-space inductive foundry can either be used in low-precision applications (radiators, scaffolding, tanks) or more complex applications using additional manufacturing processes in space.

The inductive foundry is the ideal tool for remote and continuous in-space recycling and manufacturing. It has immediate applications on the ISS, a sustainable business case to manage orbital debris, and is a foundational element of the cislunar economy.

In Phase I, Yolo Robotics concluded that this approach is feasible and successfully demonstrated moving, melting, forming, and cooling aluminum using its advanced inductive foundry technology.

This Phase II effort shall integrate these processes into a complete prototype, culminating in a demonstration in vacuum on a reduced-gravity flight to validate the recycling process and characterize feedstocks produced in an analogous space environment.

Potential NASA Applications

For NASA, the initial application of the induction foundry is to convert waste streams into useful feedstocks in support of remote and novel missions. At small scales, NASA can create a raw material reserve for repairs and new parts on the ISS and remote outposts. At larger scales, this technology can recycle orbital debris, convert rocket bodies, or even upcycle the ISS if otherwise deorbited. In the future, induction foundries will be a key element in cislunar and lunar infrastructure construction and operation.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

For non-NASA applications, inductive foundries enable new opportunities for the cislunar economy and beyond. Debris cleanup is feasible, selling fuel and feedstock. Microgravity manufacturing is a growing venture. And traditional aerospace can build large components on-orbit from scrap without deployment. Recycling enables grand endeavors like power satellites, hotels, and asteroid refinement.