How Disposable Trash Haulers May Become Orbital Outposts for the Pentagon

The Department of Defense is developing orbital space outposts that may one day act as miniature space stations, and a potential precursor will fly to the International Space Station next year.

In June 2019, the Department of Defense put out a solicitation calling for "a self-contained and free flying orbital outpost." One contract, awarded by the Pentagon's Defense Innovation Unit and announced mid-July of this year, went to the Sierra Nevada Corporation (not the beer), whose existing technology is just a few steps away from the desired unmanned orbital outposts.

A rendering of the Shooting Star in orbit. Sierra Nevada Corporation

Rather than create the new class of spacecraft from scratch, the DIU selected several possible solutions for further study, including a proposal from SNC to modify their existing "Shooting Star" space transport module, which will join the company's "Dream Chaser" spaceplane in six resupply missions to the International Space Station beginning in fall 2021.

The Dream Chaser itself is a product of nearly 40 years of development, begun when an Australian surveillance plane over the Indian Ocean took pictures of a Soviet spacecraft recovery on June 3, 1982. It was a BOR-4 orbital rocketplane, used to test heatshield tiles, but it soon became the basis for a different type of spacecraft after NASA reverse-engineered its design and launched development of the HL-20 spaceplane.

"It kind of sounds like a spy novel," Kimberly Schwandt, Director of Communications for SNC Space Systems, told Newsweek during a recent telephone interview. "It's mind-boggling to me they did this through photographs."

Beginning with a cherrywood model based on the reconnaissance photos and carved at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia, the HL-20 was originally conceived as an alternative to the space shuttle and a potential orbital rescue vehicle.

After development contributions from Lockheed Martin, Aerojet, Draper Laboratory and other aerospace contractors, the HL-20 research passed to Sierra Nevada Corporation in 2010, in what Schwandt describes as "one of the largest technical transfers from a government to a public company." That data and researcher led to the Dream Chaser spaceplane.

The SNC Dream Chaser performing a runway landing at the end of a November 2017 free flight test. Sierra Nevada Corporation

But it's not the sleek Dream Chaser, with its folding wings and sci-fi-ready silhouette, that's primed to become a lynchpin in the Department of Defense's orbital strategies. Instead, its a disposable support vehicle—a trash hauler, which attaches to the back of the Dream Chaser like a trailer—that may evolve into the orbital outposts that could soon seed the space between Earth and the moon with miniature space stations.

A rendering of the Dream Chaser, with Shooting Star attached. Sierra Nevada Corporation

Fifteen-feet long, with pressurized compartments, solar panels, thermal controls and thrusters independent of the Dream Chaser, SNC's Shooting Star is designed to be a modular, flexible and customizable system. It's envisioned to be able to carry 10,000 pounds of equipment and berth with the ISS, subsequently becoming a cabin environment where crew members aboard the space station can unload cargo and store items for disposal.

"We are generating a ton of trash on the space station we have to get rid of," Schwandt said, describing trash disposal as one of the Shooting Star's "key capabilities."

Upon the Dream Chaser's return to Earth, the mission's Shooting Star is detached to burn up in the atmosphere.

"For every one of our six missions there is a Shooting Star," Neeraj Gupta, Director of Advanced Development at SNC Space Systems, told Newsweek in a recent telephone interview. "We make a separate one for each mission, so the manifest can be different for each mission, with different capabilities and different things tested out in each one."

Its exactly this mission flexibility that made the Shooting Star a good fit for the Defense Innovation Unit, which chose the SNC module for one of three prototype contracts for studying the possibilities of an unmanned orbital outpost, or what DIU Program Manager Nick Jernigan called a "free flying research platform."

In response to emailed questions from Newsweek, Jernigan described the Shooting Star as a potential solution to the need for "an unmanned orbital outpost capable of autonomously hosting experiments, tests, logistics functions, and evaluations that cannot otherwise be performed on the International Space Station."

The outpost could serve as an orbital fuel depot, or a distribution node for storing items between missions, or potentially act as a servicing station for space vehicles in orbit. The outposts could even become orbital manufacturing hubs.

"Manufacturing in space presents many opportunities due to the micro-gravity environment," Jernigan told Nesweek. "One set of materials which can benefit from manufacturing in the micro-gravity of space are those which possess a crystalline structure—these types of materials can be used for items such as specialized coatings and fiber optic cables with mechanical properties superior to those manufactured on Earth. In space, manufacturing also allows for the production of items that would be too large to fit inside the fairing of a launch vehicle."

While the Defense Innovation Unit's particular mission is developing commercially viable technology through public-private partnerships, the subsequent deployment of those technologies by the Department of Defense and branches of the Armed Forces also raises the potential for orbital space platforms to become more than scientific research outposts. Could an orbital outpost like a modified Shooting Star be used as a weapons or surveillance platform?

"DIU considers 'commercial solutions,'" Jernigan said. "Such applications are more appropriately employed on bespoke defense systems built by the Defense Industrial Base. The Outpost family of systems could serve as a hosting platform for many different types of payloads, it is anticipated that any outpost could support both commercial and government Earth-sensing payloads. There is no plan to use a commercial Outpost to host weapons."

Should the Shooting Star enter further development, the first Unmanned Orbital Outpost will establish a low Earth orbit for what a recent Sierra Nevada Corporation press release characterizes as "sustained free-flight operations." The company also described future plans to expand its capabilities to a variety of potential orbital applications, including the highly elliptical orbits required to service high-latitude communications and the geosynchronous Earth orbits that can sync with a specific position on the Earth's surface.

Prepping the Shooting Star for the different applications envisioned by the DIU would include the radiation hardening—protecting sensitive electronics in different radiation environments—required for wide-ranging orbital deployments within the cislunar space between the Earth and moon.

Shooting Star modules like this one are tailored to each mission. Sierra Nevada Corporation

With its existing mission as a temporary crew compartment for delivery, stowage and disposal, the Shooting Star is also nearly ready for another feature on the DIU's orbital outpost wishlist: the human-rating necessary to host astronauts and other spacefarers.

"What changes have to be made? In our case very little, because it is already designed to operate with crew when it is at ISS," Gupta told Newsweek. "Crew will be coming in there, so it's actually very little on our side that has to be changed to do that."

While the Shooting Star won't be deployed to space until fall 2021, when it and the Dream Chaser are scheduled to make their first delivery to the ISS, its Unmanned Orbital Outpost offshoot may not be far behind. According to the original DIU solicitation, the prototype should be delivered within 24 months, which means the Pentagon could have a platform ready to launch as soon as 2022.