A private company has announced tentative plans to get a private space station up and running beyond 2020, according to a report from Space.com, possibly by repurposing parts of the International Space Station (ISS).
The company is called Axiom Space, a little-known company in Houston, Texas, that has its eyes on commercializing Earth orbit. They want to launch and attach a module to the ISS in 2020, with an eye on taking control of parts of the station at a later date.
Axiom recently announced a partnership with Made In Space, who have a 3D printer on the ISS, to manufacture products in space. But Axiom has bigger goals in mind; the company hopes to start sending paying tourists into space by 2019, before setting up a private space station.
NASA has hinted before at possibly leasing out the ISS to a private organization in the near future. At the moment, the station is funded until 2024, although it could feasibly remain in orbit to 2028 or beyond. Having another company take it over would ensure the $100 billion research outpost is utilized to its fullest extent.
"As you can imagine, we keep our ear very close to the rail on that," Amir Blachman, vice president of strategic development for Axiom, told Space.com. "We have to operate on the assumption that the ISS could be de-orbited in 2024… perhaps deorbited sometime after that. There are structural and operational limitations, specifically the growing cost to maintain the ISS."
If all goes to plan, Axiom’s module would be attached in 2020. Then, sometime between 2024 to 2028, it would be detached along with some other modules on the ISS, and a new station would be put together from the existing components in orbit. It’s unclear if this would be done using the Russian or US segments of the station – although NASA noted the plans were far from being set in stone.
"NASA has had discussions with a number of entities aiming to develop a commercial module for the ISS," NASA Public Affairs Officer Daniel Huot told IFLScience. "No agreement for such a module has been signed and all such proposals will go through the normal review process. NASA is committed along with its international partners to continue supporting the International Space Station until at least 2024."
Russia has put forward a similar proposal before in the past for its own segments. These have an advantage over the US side, as their modules have their own thrusters and can be moved more easily. The US modules were taken to the ISS by Space Shuttles, so they don't have onboard propulsion. Bigelow Aerospace and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) have also discussed launching a separate private space station in 2020.