On August 2, 2023, Airbus officially announced its participation in a joint venture with Voyager Space, to build a new Low Earth Orbit space station, called Starlab. The project aims to develop, build and operate Starlab, to be an advantageous successor of the ISS for agencies and companies to use.
Coming soon to a low-Earth orbit near you…@VoyagerSH and @AirbusSpace have signed an agreement to pave the way for a transatlantic joint venture to develop, build, & operate Starlab. Together, we will unleash the nextgen of commercial space stations 🚀 https://t.co/MU0WwuEmtB pic.twitter.com/sxBSqTmYcU— Starlab (@Starlab_Space) August 2, 2023
The two companies are planning the launch of the first components in 2028, but we don’t yet know what launch provider will be transporting the station to LEO. The official sources state that a functioning and habitable station comprising a crew module, scientific equipment, a robotic arm, and power generation, will be put in orbit with a single launch.
Private space stations
The idea of a private space station isn’t new, but it’s only in recent years that a real incentive for development has been put forward. NASA has been focusing more on the private sector, with the Commercial Crew program as a great example. With the International Space Station nearing its decommissioning in 2030, NASA is interested in both keeping the scientific community able to continue manned research in orbit and enabling the private sector to bring forward a wave of new investments into space.
That’s why, in December 2021, NASA published a Space Act Agreement (SAA), which gave funds to three companies to develop independent and private space stations. One of the companies was, in fact, Voyager Space with Starlab.
In addition to these three companies, other private entities in recent years joined the commercial competition to replace the ISS, including Axiom and Vast.
Voyager Space has been one of the most active space services providers for companies in the last years, with a focus on letting customers launch satellites easily from the ISS. One of the company’s subsidiaries is Nanoracks, focusing on CubeSat deployments, that in 2022 installed the first private airlock on the ISS, BISHOP.
As said earlier, along with Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman, Voyager Space was awarded funding for a private space station development. In particular, it received the most funds: $160 million, to start the design and engineering parts of the project.
The company had started working alongside Lockheed Martin for the first project phases, with the habitation module of the station being “inspired” by the Bigelow module on the ISS. An inflatable habitation module for the crew to live in and make experiments.
Airbus joins the effort
In January 2023, Voyager Space announced that Airbus was also joining the team for additional expertise in building Starlab. However, in the statement released on August 2, the two companies made it official that the European aerospace company was taking the more relevant role of Lockheed, in fact replacing them, for designing and operating the station.
This great change comes with a difference in the project, which now seems to have scrapped the idea of an inflatable module, for a rigid one. Airbus will be developing said module, along with Nanoracks. Airbus will also account for a subsidiary concerned with the commercial operations on the European side, while Voyager Space will manage the US-based requests.
With the announcement, both Matthew Kuta, Voyager’s president, and Jean-Marc Nasr, head of Airbus’ Space Activities expressed their satisfaction with this new signed agreement, looking forward to collaborating in “This transatlantic venture with footprints on both sides of the ocean” as stated by the latter.
Starlab will be equipped with various technologies and testbeds for many different experiments and requests. With a great internal volume for activities, the station will also be equipped with a robotic arm and payload deployment capabilities, along with multiple docking ports for future expansion and of course, spacecraft berthing.
According to the official Starlab website, the possible applications of the station are multiple. They go from biology to physics, research on plant growth in space, and many other possible options.
Voyager Space is thinking of the station not only as a scientific outpost but also as a comfortable place for people. As far as human presence is concerned, we know that the renowned Hilton Hotel Group has been tasked to design accommodations for astronauts, comprising sleeping modules, common areas, and hospitality for space tourism.
The Starlab project has also recently (June ‘23) passed the NASA System Requirement Review, which certifies the maturity of the project and its adherence to safety standards. With the involvement of a great European partner, Starlab is getting ready to become a reality, with great implications for future space activities and research, as much as the potential new involvement of Europe in the great space economy expansion of the coming years.