On Monday, Blue Origin announced plans to build a new private space station called the Orbital Reef. According to reports, the new space station would be a commercial off-earth outpost and will arrive before 2030.
What is the Orbital Reef?
As we mentioned earlier, the Orbital Reef is Blue Origin’s new space station. According to its official website, it will be the “premier mixed-use space station in low Earth orbit for commerce, research, and tourism by the end of this decade.” This jargon means that the Orbital Reef will probably be a successor of the International Space Station, which is expected to be defunct by 2028-2030. Brent Sherwood, Senior Vice President of Advanced Development Programs for Blue Origin, said that the project would reduce the cost and provide services required to normalize spaceflight. “For over sixty years, NASA and other space agencies have developed orbital space flight and space habitation, setting us up for commercial business to take off in this decade,” he said.
The Companies Behind the Project
Billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Sierra Space, a designer of space rocket components, seem to be taking the lead on the Orbital Reef project. However, it was announced as more of a partnership between the companies and four other organizations. They are Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering Solutions, and Arizona State University. The group, totaling six members, is tasked with building key elements and unique services to the new private space station. Notably, Elon’s fledgling space company is not a part of this project. Sorry SpaceX fans!
Blue Origin will provide utility systems, large-diameter core modules, and the reusable heavy-lift New Glenn launch system for the station.
Sierra Space, a designer of space rocket components, will provide the expandable Large Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE) module. This will serve as the primary living quarters for those aboard the Orbital Reef. The company will also provide the Dream Chaser spaceplane. The Dream Chaser spaceplane was developed by Sierra Space and will be used for crew and cargo transportation and capable of landing on runways worldwide.
Redwire Space, an American aerospace company, will provide the solar arrays and other deployable structures for the space station. The company will also provide payload operations and support research and manufacturing work.
Genesis Engineering Solutions will contribute a single-person spacecraft, which will allow Orbital Reef visitors to take spacewalks from the outpost.
Boeing, a key partner in the ISS program, will be in charge of Orbital Reef operations and maintenance. The company will also provide science modules and the Starliner capsule, which will deliver people and cargo to the outpost.
Arizona State University will lead a consortium of 14 universities to provide research advice and public outreach for the project.
Who gets to use the Orbital Reef?
Blue Origin says the Orbital Reef will operate as a “mixed-use business park” in space, unlike the ISS, which primarily served as a research hub for Europe, the United States, Russia, Canada and Japan. Hence, the Orbital Reef is not a like-for-like “replacement” of the ISS but another step in the direction of space commercialization. According to the statement released by Blue Origin, “seasoned space agencies, high-tech consortia, sovereign nations without space programs, media and travel companies, funded entrepreneurs and sponsored inventors, and future-minded investors all have a place on Orbital Reef.” Basically, we could be seeing a lot more filmmakers travel to space to make movies, more commercial spaceflight, and not just research-and-repair missions.
The Design of the New Space Station
The Orbital Reef will be ready before 2030. The initial configuration of the space station will consist of a power system, a core module, the LIFE habitat, and a Genesis spacecraft. The space station will grow over time, with the addition of more custom-built modules for other service workloads.
According to Sherwood, the initial outpost of the private space station will feature 29,311 cubic feet (830 cubic meters) of pressurized volume, which will support up to ten crew members. For comparison, according to space.com, the ISS has 32,333 cubic feet (916 cubic m) of internal volume, which is equivalent to that of a Boeing 747 jet. The four-person Starlab will have a habitat module with 12,000 cubic feet (340 cubic m) of volume.