Nanoracks tests tech to slice up space junk in orbit for 1st time

cylinder shaped space station in deep space with earth in the far distance
Nanoracks is developing an Outpost series of experiment hubs, which would use old rocket stages in space. (Image credit: Nanoracks)

A historic experiment eroded metal for the first time in space.

A SpaceX rideshare flight recently hosted a robot that softened up metal through friction, demonstrating a technique that could one day be used against rogue space debris.

With tens of thousands of pieces floating around in orbit, and more satellites launched into low Earth orbit by the day, the U.S. government and private companies alike are seeking more solutions to protect the zone from cluttering up too much for space exploration. NASA, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission have all released new frameworks addressing space debris in recent weeks.

The technique demonstrated on the Transporter-5 mission earlier this year is called friction milling, "which uses a cutting tool operating at high rotations per minute to soften the metal," experiment host Nanoracks wrote in a recent statement. (The robotic arm and samples were completely sealed up in this experiment as a further precaution against generating new space debris.)

Nanoracks (which hosts U.S. experiments aboard the International Space Station) is aiming to develop a series of Outpost stations that would host payloads aboard expired rocket stages, in the near future, but this first demonstration took place aboard a rideshare rocket.

Related: NASA looks to private outposts to build on International Space Station's legacy

There's still more to learn for future Outpost missions, emphasized the participating entities (which included Nanoracks, Voyager and Maxar, which provided the robotic arm.) 

The mission met its goal in cutting up a single "coupon" or sample of corrosion-resistant steel similar to what is found on the outside of a United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket, but the robot didn't make it to two extra coupons available as a "reach goal." 

"We will dig into why the two extra coupons were not cut," Marshall Smith, Nanoracks senior vice president of space systems, said in the statement. 

The mission was called Outpost Mars Demo-1 and aims to be the first in a series of demonstrations towards metal cutting in space. With the demonstrator now safely burned up in Earth's atmosphere, officials say they will analyze the available telemetry before announcing efforts for a second mission.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: