April 24, 2024

Orbital Reef and commercial destinations in low Earth orbit – future space research opportunities


Across all of its modules, Orbital Reef will have hundreds of MLE volumes to host passive and active payloads, as well as state-of-the-art research facilities to enable the continuation and expansion of R&D currently carried out on the ISS, as well as to initiate new lines of technological research and development. To achieve a smooth transition from the ISS, Orbital Reef’s payload interfaces will be backward compatible with ISS MLE standards, meaning the hardware used on the ISS will be compatible by default. Additionally, Orbital Reef interfaces will offer optional updated interfaces to optimize processes and crew time. Orbital Reef will have the ability to host external payloads, accessible via an external scientific and robotic decompression chamber, which will transfer them from visiting vehicles. An airlock will provide external access to astronauts through Extravehicular Activity (EVA). Additionally, any customer’s free-in-orbit passengers may be eligible for deployment from the Orbital Reef or visiting vehicles to serve as platforms for autonomous exploration experiments, isolated microgravity environments, and unique views of the Orbital Reef, Earth, and space. deep. Likewise, complete modules developed by third parties can be attached to Orbital Reef, receiving utilities (power, life support, etc.) and services to allow them to focus on their specific use cases.

For internal loads, the Orbital Reef will provide 28 VDC, 120 VDC, and 120 VAC power; data transmission via 10 G Base-T Ethernet and Wi-Fi; 36 kW of heat rejection; and nitrogen, carbon dioxide, water, air and vacuum exhaust distribution hardware. Orbital Reef crew time may be made available for operating customer payloads and payload facilities, photography and videography, and other activities. Conversely or in parallel, customers themselves can work and live on Orbital Reef with the opportunity to bring their own payload facilities as needed. The payload facilities will provide the capabilities needed to address multiple use cases and scientific and technical R&D. These include freezer banks (-80°C and -20°C), refrigeration (4°C), incubators, separate glove boxes for physical and life sciences, microscopes, optical bench platform, 3-D printers, biofabrication, production facilities, a pressurized gas tank farm, and areas designated for commercial and NASA payload facilities and devices or for multipurpose use. Externally, Orbital Reef will provide loads powered with up to 2 kW of distributed power at 120 VDC and 10 G Base-T Ethernet. The assemblies will be compatible with small, medium and large in-orbit replaceable unit (ORU) robotic interface standards (SORI, MORI and LORI, respectively).

Designed to solve the challenges of the ISS era

As described above, the ISS has been the main space platform where we learned to develop processes and technologies, made innovative discoveries and opened the doors to new fields of science. However, several challenges must be resolved to allow R&D to continue in space. For example, it took 42 flights to reach 1005 m fully assembled.3 of pressurized volume on the ISS1. Likewise, the ISS was designed in a way that required the maintenance of external spacewalks, and this feature impacted the availability of crew time to conduct research activities. Ironically, the success of R&D on the ISS has generated several other challenges, including limitations on storage (especially temperature-controlled storage) and competition for on-orbit facilities. These problems were compounded by the relatively low cadence of flights to bring in new payloads, the limited number of visiting vehicles and the lack of descent opportunities. Although several vehicles have visited the International Space Station, after the space shuttle retired in 2011, only Russia’s Progress, ESA’s ATV (retired in 2015), JAXA’s HTV (retired in 2020), Northrop’s Cygnus Grumman and SpaceX’s Dragon could carry significant cargo to the ISS. . But because all but Dragon and Soyuz burn up on reentry, sample returns have been limited to those vehicles. This pace delays researchers’ access to their science, reduces the pace of research and results in an excess occupancy of storage and freezer space on the ISS. Other challenges that need to be addressed by the CLD community include the ability to modernize research facilities as quickly as technology advances and to provide access to non-ISS partner countries and private industry with fewer restrictions. Although the intention was set in the 1980s to develop a space station to galvanize the commercialization of LEO, until now these and other challenges have resulted in slow realization.9.

Orbital Reef’s modules will take advantage of two key innovations: the larger, 7-meter-diameter fairing from Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, and lightweight assets and expandable technologies from Sierra Space’s LIFE.MT habitat. LifeMT the module alone provides about a third of the ISS’s pressurized volume. Additionally, the Orbital Reef is being designed so that it can be maintained from inside the space station, avoiding complex EVA operations and helping to focus crew time on research and development, production and revenue generation efforts. Orbital Reef’s primary assembly will feature Extravehicular Robotics (EVR), limiting conventional EVAs to contingencies and training missions. Substantial improvements in robotic technologies, as well as designs for robotic assembly and maintenance, will support this cost-effective and safety-oriented approach8. This reduction in operating expenses translates into lower research costs in Orbital Recife for the scientific community.

To meet the transportation challenges of the ISS era, Orbital Reef will utilize Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch system and Sierra Space’s Cargo and Crew Dream Chasers. Additionally, Orbital Reef will be able to host other vehicles (e.g. Dragon, Boeing Starliner, Cygnus) with standard docking and docking interfaces. Additionally, as a winged vehicle, Dream Chaser will provide a low-gravity return path to ensure gravity-sensitive samples (e.g., protein crystals) return safely to Earth, and will be able to land on any runway that can accommodate a Boeing 737 worldwide. , providing researchers and companies quick access to their samples or products developed in space. Additionally, our colleagues at Amazon/Amazon Supply Chain are reimagining the art of the possible for space logistics. Our robust access to ascending and descending mass, coupled with a philosophy of moving at the speed of business, will enable immediate upgrades to on-orbit facilities to stay current with state-of-the-art science. Robotics and automation will improve research activities and optimize crew time, and technologies such as augmented reality will connect space researchers to their laboratories on Earth, optimizing collaboration and the efficiency of research activities. Given its commercial nature, Orbital Reef will provide orbit access to both ISS and non-ISS partner countries and the private sector. University and Industry R&D Advisory Boards, administered by Arizona State University and MIT, respectively, provide user-specific input to shape the next generation of facilities and processes needed by researchers in academia, government, and industry.

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