NASA recently handed out study contracts to six companies to develop deep Space habitats that will sustain astronauts in cis-lunar space and on the Journey to Mars. Five of the companies are developing habitats that would be launched fully outfitted and ready to go. A team called Ixion, led by Nanonracks, and including Space Systems Loral and the United Launch Alliance, has come up with a different approach.

Nanoracks, which has provided commercial experiments for the International Space Station, envisions using the fuel tanks of upper stages of rockets and outfitting them to become habitats.

The idea of using a fuel tank of a launch vehicle to make a space station habitat is an old one. Skylab, which flew in the 1970s, was the upper stage of a Saturn V. In the 1990s a group of NASA engineers proposed a concept called Geode which would have converted the space shuttle liquid fuel tank into a space station, attaching modules, robotic arms, and so on while refurbishing the inside.

The first step for the Ixion effort would be to convert the upper stage of the Atlas V, called the Centaur. The Centaur would be equipped with a docking hatch. When the Atlas V takes a Cygnus cargo ship or, later, a Boeing CST-100 Starliner, the Centaur would remain attached instead of being discarded and tossed into the atmosphere. When the Cygnus and later the Starliner docks with the ISS, the robot arm would snatch the Centaur and attached it to another docking port.

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The Centaur would be vented of fuel and pumped full of oxygen. Then astronauts would enter and outfit the interior to make it a fulling functioning habitat. The newly created module could remain at the International Space Station or could be tugged to a new location to form the basis of a commercial space station. The resulting habitat would be four meters wide and have an interior volume of 54 cubic meters.

The process could be adapted to other launch vehicles as well. The upper stage hydrogen fuel tank for the heavy lift Space Launch System would have an eye popping volume of 495 cubic meters, half the volume of the ISS. Using the SLS upper stage hydrogen tank to build deep space habitats would help spread the $1 billion cost of launching the heavy lift rocket, making each mission dual use.

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