Canso spaceport partners with U.S. company to recycle rockets in space
Nanoracks wants to repurpose the upper stages of MLS's rockets to build facilities in orbit
The company planning to build a rocket-launching facility on Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore has partnered with a U.S. company to try to reuse parts of its rockets in space.
Maritime Launch Services and Houston-based Nanoracks have signed an agreement to work on repurposing the upper stages of MLS's rockets — the parts of the vehicle that contained fuel and are released as it climbs into orbit.
With the help of NASA funding, Nanoracks has been studying ways to recycle space junk to create what it calls "outposts" throughout the solar system, including hotels, research parks, fuel depots and storage centres.
"There's lots of things that you can be doing with the upper stages and our core belief at Nanoracks is you don't waste something in space — it's too precious," said Jeffrey Manber, the company's CEO.
The company is still in the beginning stages of figuring out how to repurpose material, but it is looking at using robots that "look like a hand or a snake" to cut and weld in space.
"You can have robots spring to life and they can put up walls or they can take satellites and deploy them or they can operate labs," Manber said.
In addition to partnering with MLS, Nanoracks has teamed up with Canadian company MDA Robotics on the project.
Nanoracks said building outposts in space rather than constructing them in modules on the ground and then launching them into space is more affordable and less risky.
"A launch is a dangerous and risky thing technically.… I have a launch tomorrow morning. I'm nervous and I don't know how many launches I've been to," he said Friday.
MLS plans to launch satellites for use in near-earth imaging, communications and scientific experiments from a spaceport it will develop in Canso, N.S.
The company plans to use Cyclone 4M rockets, designed by Ukrainian company Yuzhnoye and manufactured by Yuzhmash.
Manber said right now, the upper stages of the Cyclone 4M would not likely be usable for human purposes such as hotels because "we're not sure it would be safe for humans" due to the type of fuel that's used. Yuzhnoye is working on developing "green" fuels, Manber said.
But the Cyclone 4M could be used for other purposes such as building a fuel depot for journeys to Mars, Manber said.
The upper stages of rockets are usually either burned up or sent to "junkyard orbits," contributing to the estimated 34,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 centimetres that are floating in space. Space junk poses hazards to astronauts and equipment in orbit.
MLS president and CEO Stephen Matier said recycling the materials is a smart move.
"We've got this stuff up there anyway, so why not take it and reuse it and repurpose it for something that has a second benefit, a second bite at the apple, if you will, that does more science," he said.
If the idea of recycling space junk is proven feasible, there could be a commercial benefit for both MLS and Nanoracks as they approach other companies who may want to use the technology, Matier said.
"Having a station that somebody can go to and drop off material or collect material as they're pursuing their mission, you know, that's the way it's going to benefit everybody."
Manber said his company chose to work with MLS because he respects the group's "seasoned industry veterans" as well as the Ukrainian rockets they plan to use. The northern latitude of the launch site would also give Nanoracks access to different orbits, he said.
MLS's project received environmental approval from the province in June.
Matier said he hopes to launch the first rocket from the Canso facility in late 2021 or early 2022.