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This is what the »Starlab« could look like

Photo: Starlab Space

The International Space Station (ISS) is probably the most expensive single object in human history – and it is a discontinued model. Towards the end of the decade, the exact date is still unclear, the outpost of humanity in space is to be brought down in individual parts. Plans are already underway for the time after that. Several companies, most notably the US companies Axiom and Blue Origin, have already presented ideas for smaller commercial space stations with partners.

Now the European Airbus Group also wants to work on a private station in space. The company said on Wednesday that it had agreed to establish a joint venture with the U.S. company Voyager Space. This will have locations in the USA and Europe and will take care of the development, construction and operation of the planned "Starlab".

"The International Space Station is widely regarded as the most successful platform for global collaboration in history, and we want to build on that legacy with Starlab," says Voyager CEO Matthew Kuta. The aim is to "reliably meet" the demand of global space agencies and at the same time "open up new opportunities for commercial users". Jean-Marc Nasr, Head of Space Systems at Airbus, called the project a "trailblazer for continued European and American leadership in space that moves humanity forward."

These are big words. It remains to be seen whether action will follow, and if so, how quickly. Both companies had already announced a cooperation in January. At that time, the year 2028 was the start date for the planned station. In an announcement by the US space agency Nasa, there had previously even been talk of 2027. But nothing more is heard of this now.

The space business is lengthy and capital-intensive, with only a fraction of all announced projects being implemented. On the other hand, the current project is probably more than just a PR announcement. This has to do with Nasa. About a year and a half ago, the U.S. space agency invested 160 million dollars in the project through the Nanoracks sub-company. At that time, the companies Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman had also received funding of a comparable amount, albeit slightly less than nanoracks.

Interesting for Europe's astronauts

NASA's goal: After transporting cargo and astronauts to the previous space station, it wants to leave the construction and operation of a – much smaller – successor in low Earth orbit to private companies. The space agency itself wants to focus primarily on its "Artemis" lunar program, for which it is also working with private companies such as SpaceX – and later possibly also on flights to more distant destinations such as Mars.

NASA's start-up funding does not guarantee that Starlab will actually fly. But it is an indication that the US space agency is taking the project seriously. Airbus and Voyager say that they have recently completed the so-called System Requirements Review (SRR) for the "Starlab" plans. Nasa's mission and security requirements have been successfully taken into account.

Should the "Starlab" actually be in space one day, the station would definitely be much simpler than the ISS. At the same time, according to the company, the same payload capacity will be available for experiments. According to Voyager, the station will be permanently manned by humans. It could also be a possible destination for the flights of European astronauts. The Artemis programme also offers ESA opportunities to fly to the moon. But in order to make even some use of the European Astronaut Corps, further flight destinations and opportunities will be necessary.