Xplore partners with Nanoracks to set up opportunities for deep-space missions

Xplore mission
An artist’s conception shows Xplore’s Xcraft probe making its way to the moon. (Xplore Illustration)

Seattle-based Xplore says it’s joining forces with Houston-based Nanoracks to create low-cost rideshare opportunities for payloads heading for the moon, Mars and other destinations beyond Earth orbit.

The partnership takes advantage of the commercial approach to deep-space exploration that’s being pioneered at NASA under Administrator Jim Bridenstine, said Lisa Rich, Xplore’s chief operating officer and co-founder.

“We’re the perfect fit for Bridenstine’s goal of NASA being one partner of many partners,” she told GeekWire today.

Nanoracks will provide customer-facing services for payload design, preparation and integration on Xplore’s missions — potentially starting with Moon Xpeditions, a lunar mission that Xplore is targeting for launch in late 2021.

The arrangement builds on Nanoracks’ experience working with payloads and hardware for the International Space Station.

“Commercial space no longer stops at low Earth orbit,” Nanoracks CEO Jeffrey Manber said in a news release. “Xplore paves the way for commercial utilization and services to the moon, Mars and beyond. We are truly excited at Nanoracks to be working with Xplore to bring our commercial knowledge from low Earth orbit into deep-space exploration.”

Xplore was founded in 2017 by Lisa Rich and CEO Jeff Rich, who are also managing partners of Hemisphere Ventures in Seattle. Hemisphere has invested in more than 200 companies, including space ventures ranging from SpaceX to Vector Launch and Axiom Space. Up to now, Xplore has been privately funded, but Lisa Rich said that “now we’re at the point that we’re raising a seed round.”

The heart of Xplore’s business model is the Xcraft, a spacecraft that’s designed to be mounted on a standard payload adapter known as an ESPA ring. It’ll be capable of carrying 30 to 70 kilograms (66 to 154 pounds) of payload in a volume amounting to a little less than 2 cubic feet (0.05 cubic meters, or 50U in Cubesat terms).

“Traditionally, when you look at the size of a spacecraft, maybe only 10 to 15 percent of the mass is the payload bay,” Rich said. “Our elegant engineering and design have allowed for 40 percent of the mass to be payload.”

Rich said that should help drive down launch costs, although she declined to give a projected price list. “It’s one-twentieth of the cost of existing missions to deep-space destinations,” she said.

There are a few question marks surrounding the venture: For example, Rich isn’t ready to say who’ll be building the Xcraft hardware. “We are currently considering a state-of-the-art facility that is appropriate for building Xcraft,” she told GeekWire.

Also, Xplore’s flight plan depends on getting spots for secondary payloads on other people’s launch vehicles. Rich said the fact that the Xcraft conforms to the ESPA standard should make it easier to find those spots. Most rockets —  including SpaceX’s Falcon 9, United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, and NASA’s Space Launch System — are capable of accommodating ESPA-class spacecraft.

Rich said Xcraft will be able to carry payloads ranging from imagers and life science experiments to technology demonstrations and deployable nanosatellites.

Xplore has already struck a deal with the Arch Mission Foundation to deliver miniaturized libraries to deep space, and with Celestis to carry cremated remains and DNA samples on a one-way journey beyond the moon. And that’s not all: Rich said the company is in discussions with potential payload providers about even weightier missions yet to be revealed.

“The unique capability is that we’re providing ‘space as a service,’ so that all they have to care about is their instrument and getting their data back, which we provide for them,” she said.

Rich acknowledged that Xplore isn’t yet a household name in space circles — but she pointed to the years of experience that the company’s team of about 25 people is bringing from Planetary Resources, Stratolaunch and other commercial and government space programs.

“Even though we’re a new company, we have an exceptional team that’s been working with NASA for decades,” she said, “so they can trust us.”

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