Earth’s orbit is about to get even more crowded.
Blue Origin—the space firm that Amazon head Jeff Bezos founded in 2000—is partnering with a handful of spaceflight companies and universities to build a “mixed-use business park” in low-Earth orbit, the Kent, Washington-based company announced this week. The partnership, dubbed “Orbital Reef,” aims to provide a collaborative space to conduct research in orbit, develop products, and allow tourists the opportunity to experience microgravity.
Orbital Reef is the latest in a series of proposals to expand humanity’s presence in orbit as the slowly decaying International Space Station (ISS) inches closer to death. While NASA officially extended the more than 20-year-old space station’s life until 2030, experts fear it’ll break down before we’ve launched its replacement.
Sierra Space, the Louisville, Colorado-based firm known for its Dream Chaserspaceplane, is Blue Origin’s primary partner on the Orbital Reef project. Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering Solutions, and a group of universities led by Arizona State University (ASU) have also signed on.
Scheduled to launch later this decade, the space station will circle the Earth at an altitude of roughly 500 kilometers (310 miles), and will be able to accommodate up to ten occupants. “Think of it as a village. Think of it as many different organizations and people in their own parts of Orbital Reef doing their own activities,” Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Ph.D.—the vice president of ASU’s Interplanetary Initiative and the principal investigator of NASA’s Psyche mission—said in a video announcing the project.
Blue Origin will be responsible for the core systems of the space station and will likely deliver it to space via the company’s forthcoming New Glenn rocket, according to a press release. Sierra Space will contribute an inflatable habitat called the Large Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE) and make the Dream Chaser available to transport visitors. Boeing, based in Seattle, Washington, will reportedly contribute the station’s science modules and manage operations and maintenance on board. The company will also use its Starliner spacecraft for transport.
For its part, Lanham, Maryland-based Genesis Engineering Solutions is developing a Single Person Spacecraft to be used for “external operations and tourist excursions.” Meanwhile, Redwire Space, based in Jacksonville, Florida, is charged with managing payload operations and will assist in guiding research, development, and manufacturing onboard. Arizona State University will lead a consortium of 14 universities in developing and advising research opportunities aboard the outpost.
At the moment, it’s unclear exactly how much the space station will cost, but Bezos has previously committed to spending $1 billion of his own money yearly on Blue Origin projects. And the project will undoubtedly gain the attention of wealthy countries (like the United Arab Emirates), which are eager to expand their footprint in orbit. Adventure-seeking space tourists could also help foot the bill.
The race to open up the cosmos to the paying masses is on, and several companies are eyeing the prime orbital real estate. In May, Rocklin, California-based Orbital Assembly Corporation announced lofty plans to build the world’s first official “space hotel,” dubbed Voyager Station, by 2027 (we’ll see about that). Made from a network of interlinking pods, the ring-like outpost is designed to host almost 400 people.
Houston, Texas’s Axiom Space is developing a small module (designed by famed furniture designer Philippe Starck) that will launch later this decade, and NASA has approved it to dock with the ISS. Nanoracks—another company based in Houston, aiming to convert spent rocket stages into space hotels—is partnering with Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin to build a four-person inflatable space station called Starlab. It is expected to open its doors to paying customers in 2027, SpaceNews.com reports.
Spacefaring countries are building out their presence in space, too. For instance, China launched the first module of its Tiangong space station earlier this year, and it’s scheduled for completion in 2022. The orbital outpost, China’s permanent space station, is smaller than the ISS and is designed to host up to six astronauts.
Now that Blue Origin and its billionaire backer have entered the chat, the race to colonize low-Earth orbit is on.
Source: Popular Mechanics