WASHINGTON, March 14 (UPI) -- Lockheed Martin has a new plan for resupplying the International Space Station, and it includes the use of a tugboat-like craft called Jupiter. As the defense contractor and aerospace company explains it, Jupiter would serve as deliveryman, garbageman, satellite deployment specialist and astronaut transport vehicle -- all in one.
The most immediate use for Jupiter will be as a cargo ferry, shuttling supplies back and forth to ISS. But unlike other cargo vehicles that start and end their mission on the Earth's surface -- like SpaceX's Dragon capsule -- Jupiter will hang out in space 24/7.
Jupiter would begin its life by delivering a cargo load in a container the size of a rail car called the Exoliner. After delivering the Exoliner, Jupiter will chill out in low Earth orbit, perhaps serving other purposes -- like deploying satellites -- until it's time to deliver another cargo load.
When another resupply mission comes along, Jupiter will both take out the trash for ISS and deliver the space station the new Exoliner. Jupiter would all the while be accompanied by a detached robotic arm to assist in the various handoffs.
"Just imagine a future of interplanetary shipping lanes to the Moon and Mars, bustling autonomous spacecraft carrying supplies, scientific instruments and construction materials for habitats," Jim Crocker, vice president and general manager of Space Systems Company International, said in a company press release that likened their plans to a 21st century Transcontinental Railroad in space.
"Picture commercial hosted payloads and cube sats, sharing space with NASA instruments and reducing costs," Crocker said. "Picture a fleet of space habitats, serving as orbiting labs and helping Orion astronauts on their journey to Mars."
The new space architecture won't necessarily revolutionize how cargo is delivered to ISS. And it's unclear whether the method will save time or money. But Jupiter has the advantage of versatility. In an aerospace industry that's become increasingly crowded, Lockheed seems to be making the long play.
A versatile system like Jupiter could ultimately find a way to make itself useful in a variety of future NASA missions.
"Although our priority is going to be servicing the International Space Station and providing the ability to carry commercial payloads and deploy small satellites, we're also designing this system from the beginning to be able to do deep-space missions," Josh Hopkins, the company's space exploration architect, told reporters at a press briefing on Thursday night.
In other words, if NASA awards this ISS delivery contract to Lockheed, it could set the company up for more success down the line.