Nanoracks Successfully Completes Historic Demo of Structural Metal Cutting in Space

HOUSTON (NASA PR) — Earlier this summer, Voyager and Nanoracks announced our first Outpost demonstration mission, called Outpost Mars Demo-1 (OMD-1), which launched aboard SpaceX’s Transporter 5 rideshare flight. We are thrilled to share that the experiment was successful, while also offering insights into challenges and required improvements as we move towards metal-cutting in space.

The mission marked the first-ever demonstration of metal cutting in space using a technique called friction milling to cut corrosion-resistant steel commonly found in space debris. This experiment is a historic first in the development of space as a viable place for recycling, manufacturing, and construction operations.

The OMD-1 mission operated as a hosted payload aboard an upper stage of the SpaceX rocket. OMD-1 was supported by our partner Maxar Technologies, who developed a new robotic arm that leveraged a commercially available friction milling end-effector, which uses a cutting tool operating at high rotations per minute to soften the metal in such a way that a cut is made while reducing on-orbit debris. The experiment’s arm and metal samples were contained inside an enclosure that was hosted on a Nanoracks power and data bus, ensuring that no debris would escape the demonstration Outpost spacecraft. The spacecraft burned up as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere after one orbit.

The mission aimed to cut one coupon of corrosion-resistant steel that is similar to the outer shell of ULA’s Vulcan Centaur–and that mission successfully completed the objective. The spacecraft contained two extra coupons as reach goals for cutting. Those coupons were not cut and the cause is under investigation.

Data from the cut was transmitted to Earth through NASA’s Near Space Network and was then analyzed by Nanoracks engineers who were able to learn quite a bit about where they can make improvements in areas such as technical adjustments and mission operations. While we weren’t able to capture photos due to interference, we were still able to gather other health and status telemetry to verify mission success and inform the next iteration.

“This successful demonstration of cutting metal in orbit marks a significant milestone in the journey to building infrastructure in space,” said Marshall Smith, Nanoracks Senior Vice President of Space Systems. “We will dig into why the two extra coupons were not cut. This is exactly why we test, examine, and test again when forging new technology in space. With the lessons we’ve learned so far, we are incredibly eager to make the necessary adjustments to be able to conduct another metal cutting experiment in the near future.”

This mission success is critical to Voyager and Nanoracks’ long-term goal of converting upper stages into outposts in-orbit, highlighting the full potential of infrastructure-as-a-service in space and orbital sustainability. We can’t wait to see what we can accomplish next!

More information about Voyager Space’s sustainability initiatives can be found here and Nanoracks’ Outpost program here.

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This program is funded as a partnership between NASA and Nanoracks through Appendix A: Habitat Systems to the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships-2 (NextSTEP-2) Broad Agency Announcement. Through NextSTEP-2, sponsored by Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA Headquarters and its industry contracts managed at Goddard Space Flight Center and Marshall Space Flight Center’s Habitation Systems Development Office, NASA and its partners are working to identify habitation concepts that can support extensive human spaceflight missions around and beyond cislunar space and applications to commercial habitation capabilities in low-Earth orbit.

Near Space Network is providing communications support to the mission so that data sent from the payload can be received on Earth for analysis.