Automated Sample Return from ISS: The Terrestrial Return Vehicle

Image Credit: Intuitive Machines

Last month,  CASIS, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, the organization which operates the U.S. National Laboratory aboard the International Space Station, announced agreements on six new unsolicited proposals designed to improve the quality of science being performed aboard the Station. One in particular stood out, a small unmanned return vehicle which would could bring back scientific samples on a regular basis. Currently, the SpaceX Dragon capsule in the only vehicle servicing ISS which can return significant amounts of cargo, but it is a capability limited by the constraints of NASA’s schedule; rather than the science itself. The new proposal, though diminutive in size, offers a niche capability which could help increase the pace of science CASIS is charged with supporting. It is also another example of the evolving relationship between NewSpace companies and the International Space Station program.

The wingless lifting body, described in a Space News article as about the size of a golf bag, and looking more like a scale model of a Star Trek TOS shuttlecraft absent the nacelles, will be built by Houston based Intuitive Machines and is called the Terrestrial Return Vehicle (you guessed it, TRV).  Fully loaded, it could return approximately 30 liters worth of samples, coming in to a gliding parachute landing at a dry lake bed after a comparatively low-G descent from orbit.

As is the case with an increasing number of articles flown to ISS aboard the SpaceX Dragon or OSC Cygnus which would give it a ride to orbit, the loaded TRV would be, in a manner of speaking “shoved out the airlock” into space. More precisely, it would be placed in the Space Station Integrated Kinetic Launcher for Orbital Payload Systems (SSIKLOPS) which in turn is placed in the Japanese Experiment Module’s slide table mini-airlock, and then grasped by the JEMS remote manipulator arm for release at the optimum time.  A benign “warm gas” thruster system would provide the de-orbit burn and re-entry maneuver capability to accurately reach its designated landing zone, offering same day of critical samples from ISS to researchers waiting in the U.S.

Intuitive Machines estimates the TRV could function up to six times per year, and will make its first flight in 2016.


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