NASA has awarded TransAstra, a space logistics startup, a Phase 2 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract worth $850,000. The agreement aims to develop a new device shaped like a cylindric bag, capable of capturing a piece of junk in orbit and moving it away from potentially dangerous locations.
Orbital Debris Removal vs Asteroid Mining
Orbital debris removal and asteroid mining have a common problem, capturing an object in space. Engineers at TransAstra found a possible solution: an inflatable bag to catch the target and bring it to another location.
The space scavenger is Worker Bee, a multipurpose tug for Low Earth Orbit and deep space missions. The spacecraft is equipped with a new kind of engine called Omnivore, the result of patented technologies.
The bag will be attached directly to Worker Bee, which will move close to the object, match the possible object spin, deploy the inflatable trap, envelop the target, and move it to its new location.
The application to asteroid mining will be straightforward. Instead of capturing a rocket stage or a dead satellite, the bag will grab an asteroid.
Thanks to another patent called Optical Mining, concentrated sunlight will hit the asteroid in the bag, releasing volatiles and precious materials. The bag will work as a container for the extracted substances, making them available for later use.
TransAstra and ThinkOrbital together for in-space recycling
What happens to the junk removed from its potentially dangerous location? TransAstra has recently developed an innovative strategy to address this matter, in collaboration with ThinkOrbital, a space infrastructure startup.
The two companies are working on the idea of in-space recycling, instead of deorbiting and destroying all the precious materials that are already around the Earth.
ThinkOrbital is studying the development of a new orbiting spacecraft, ThinkPlatform, that will act as a collecting station for dead devices. Thanks to a series of specific tools, this automatic recycling farm will be able to inspect, repair, and dismantle the objects captured by the Worker Bee tug.
“This study demonstrates that we can and should be creatively rethinking the way we approach debris remediation.”— Lee Rosen, ThinkOrbital co-founder