Lockheed Martin unveiled a new spacecraft Thursday evening that it says could not only ferry supplies to the International Space Station but also become a habitat for astronauts in deep space.
The nation's largest defense contractor is one of several high-profile companies competing for the NASA contract, which also reflects how robust the commercial space industry has become. A few years ago, NASA decided to outsource the resupply mission by hiring two contractors -- Elon Musk's SpaceX and Orbital ATK -- to take groceries and experiments to the orbiting space laboratory.
As the second round of contracts, potentially worth billions, is expected to be awarded in June, the competition has become especially fierce. Lockheed and Boeing, neither of which bid last time, offered proposals. And they face stiff competition from other smaller space companies that have grown quickly and demonstrated the ability to serve space missions for NASA. In addition to the cargo launches, NASA last year awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to take astronauts to the space station.
At the announcement Thursday evening, Lockheed executives said their offering to take cargo to space was markedly different from any of the other proposals. Its Jupiter system, which includes a cargo container called an Exoliner, would launch on an Atlas V rocket. Once in space, Jupiter would detach and fly to the space station. After delivering the cargo, and then filling up with trash from the station, Jupiter would disembark.
"And here's where things get different," said Jim Crocker, vice president and general manager of Lockheed's Space Systems International division, while explaining the chronology Thursday.
Instead of coming straight back to Earth, Jupiter would remain in orbit and carry out other missions, such as deploying commercial satellites.
Then, some months or weeks later on the next cargo mission, another Atlas V would launch with another Exoliner container filled with supplies. Once in space, the container would deploy on the rocket's second stage and meet up with the container filled with trash. And then the two containers would swap places using a robotic arm. The one filled with cargo would deploy from the second stage, connect with Jupiter and fly to the space station. The one filled with trash would connect with the second stage. Then it would fly back to Earth, ultimately crashing in the ocean.
But Jupiter has other capabilities as well, Lockheed says.
"This takes us beyond the space station," Crocker said.
The system could also carry humans, Lockheed says, and is big enough to hold big pieces of equipment that astronauts need for extended stays in space. It could hold treadmills, for example, which astronauts would need for exercise, as well as the systems needed to support life in space.
"Although our priority is going to be serving the ISS . . . we're also designing this system from the beginning to do deep space missions," said Josh Hopkins, a space exploration architect at Lockheed.