A private space station could become the first manufacturing hub to be positioned outside the planet if Houston-based company Axiom Space's plans and tests go as designed.
The company plans to not only take a cue from the International Space Station (ISS) by building another habitable station in space but also commence production starting with 3D-printed space material itself. The station will be built to manufacture and deploy small satellites at a fraction of the current cost required to launch a spacecraft from Earth, hopes Axiom.
The initial plan is to get a practical and hands on idea of touring the ISS. For that, the company aims to start launching space tours for 10 days to the ISS from 2019, the training for which should begin this year.
The actual station assembly will take place from 2020, as the company will launch its own modules to link up with the ISS. At first, the outpost will be capable of housing seven crew members and as additional pieces are put up, the capacity of the habitat will increase.
As ISS heads for its end in 2024, Axiom's station will separate and begin flying freely in low Earth orbit. The 2024 deadline for the ISS could be extended giving Axiom more time to tidy up the habitat.
Once the station stabilises in space, the company will begin setting up tiny manufacturing hubs for which it has teamed up with Made In Space, a California-based company that built both of the 3D printers aboard the ISS.
Timeline and cost
But when will all of this happen? While no fixed date is known for the completion of the station, Amir Blachman, Axiom Space's vice president of strategic development, told Space.com that 2027 or a year plus or minus is when they think the manufacturing can start.
"We're talking 2026, 2027, 2028. We can envision printing hundreds of jet turbines and super-specialised alloys, and down-massing them in quantity," he said.
The total cost of construction, launch and assembly of the station is estimated to be between $1.5bn (£1.16bn) and $1.8bn. To get regular funds pouring in, Axiom plans to continue its space tourist programme until the entire hub is completely developed.
Although the company has formally existed for just 16 months, it is being headed by space veterans like Axiom's president and CEO Michael Suffredini, who managed the ISS programme for a decade, and its chairman Kam Ghaffarian who was the president and CEO of SGT Inc, a Nasa contractor that operates the ISS and trains American astronauts.