As the International Space Station (ISS) approaches the end of its service, China and India are planning to deploy their own space stations, and NASA has contracted with three aerospace companies to design commercial space stations. Now, Airbus has proposed its own Multi-Purpose Orbital Module (MPOP) called the Airbus LOOP, a modular space segment for future space stations and long-duration missions to Mars.
The Airbus LOOP is a three-deck design that includes a Habitation Deck, a Science Deck, and a Centrifuge that simulates gravity for two crewmembers at a time. The module measures 8 meters in diameter and provides close to 100 cubic meters of volume. Each deck is accessible via a central “Tunnel” surrounded by a greenhouse structure that can accommodate plant experiments and provide a steady supply of supplemental greens, legumes, and other plants.
The module is designed for a crew of four but can accommodate up to eight astronauts at a time. The deck selection can be adapted to individual mission requirements and objectives, or the mechanical structure can be used alone. Individual decks can be equipped with mission-specific machinery and infrastructure depending on the mission requirements.
The Habitation Deck is essentially a “common area” with large windows and exercise equipment. The Science Deck is equipped with multiple computer terminals, an airlock that allows the crew to conduct extra-vehicular activities (EVAs), and smaller portholes to provide views of space. The Centrifuge, which consists of two weights and two crew pods, is perhaps the most interesting element of the LOOP. These pods contain exercise bikes and can accommodate a single crew person, allowing the crew to work out (two at a time) in a simulated gravity environment.
This three-deck design meets all of the basic needs of long-duration stays in space and makes the LOOP compatible with all crew and cargo vehicles, including those currently in service and those in development. The LOOP could occupy a role similar to what NASA had in mind with his proposed Non-Atmospheric Universal Transport Intended for Lengthy United States Exploration (Nautilus-X) concept.
Airbus emphasizes that multiple LOOP modules can be combined to create a full-on space station, each outfitted with various decks to accommodate a range of operations and experiments. The LOOP could also be integrated into the Lunar Gateway or act as the habitation module of the proposed Deep Space Transport (DST).
The Centrifuge would need to have an angular velocity of 3.86 meters/second and achieve 9.2 rotations per minute to simulate Martian gravity – 3.72 meters/second2, or about 38 percent of Earth’s. It is possible it could be spun down to 2.55 meters/second, making 6 rotations per minute, to simulate lunar gravity as well. This would be especially useful during missions to Mars since it would help mitigate the physiological effects of microgravity while acclimating the crew to what they will experience on the surface.
Airbus has a long history of human spaceflight programs, like the ISS Columbus Module, the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), and the Orion European Service Module (ESM). The LOOP builds on this legacy and could provide additional volume and even “gravity therapy” to the ISS. As the future of space exploration becomes more complex, the Airbus LOOP offers a promising solution for future space stations and missions to Mars.