NanoRacks platform placed outside International Space Station
On Aug. 9, 2016, the NanoRacks External Platform (NREP) was placed on the exterior of the International Space Station (ISS). It was completely self-funded by the company and is the first-ever commercial gateway-and-return to the extreme environment of space. It was designed in-house and manufactured by Airbus.
Spaceflight Insider recently spoke with a few people at NanoRacks about this important milestone.
“NREP provides a commercial gateway to the extreme environment of space,” said Abby Dickes, NanoRacks’ marketing and communications manager. “The NREP is a hosted payload platform where experiments are housed in enclosures similar to the CubeSat form factor. It’s ideal for small size hosted payloads and requires no additional subsystems. [It] provides all the power and communications services of a conventional spacecraft bus. The NREP can host up to five active and four passive payloads each mission. Active payloads can draw up to 30 watts of power at 28 VDC each, share a data link up to 8 Mbit/s for file transfers and real-time data streaming.”
To understand what a major development this is, it helps to know what a spacecraft bus does. It provides all the support that the payload needs – power, communications, thermal control, and data handling. Normally, any organization that wants to put a payload into low-Earth orbit would have to build not just the payload, but also the whole spacecraft. Having the NREP as a destination would tremendously save on development costs. It can support payload operations in the following categories:
- Earth remote sensing
- Space research
- Technology demonstration
- On-orbit assembly
- Commercial utilization
- Sample return
- Space environment exposure
To help with payload operation, the NREP is the first platform to utilize the ISS’s external Wi-Fi system.
“The NREP literally ‘opened the door’ for us as a company to work outside the International Space Station,” said Jeffrey Manber, NanoRacks CEO. “Every day we are getting smarter on behalf of our customers. The next program for us is our commercial airlock and then we look forward being part of the deep-space habitats.”
Manber said customers utilizing NREP are learning how the harsh space environment affects computers, sensors, materials, and electronics.
“Understanding this radiation environment is crucial as both commercial organizations and NASA look into long-term space travel,” Manber said.
The external platform will be attached to the Exposed Facility (EF) of the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM), also known as Kibo. The EF is exposed to space and has its own robotic manipulator arm, eliminating the need for time on the Canadarm2 or Dextre arms.
“The JEM Robotic Manipulator System (JRMS) maneuvers the NREP to and from the JEM airlock during payload switch out,” said Kirk Woellert, the External Payloads manager. “We expect NREP to support new payload missions about every 6 months. Each payload mission switch out requires about 10–16 hours of JRMS time, includes grapple, maneuver and de-install/install to the JEM Exposed Facility.”
NanoRacks was formed in 2009 to provide commercial hardware and services for the U.S. National Laboratory on the ISS via a Space Act Agreement with NASA. They are headquartered in Houston, next to NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
In addition to providing access both inside and outside the ISS with their NREP and plug-and-play NanoLabs, the company is also working on other projects.
The airlock Manber mentioned earlier is a concept under study by NanoRacks as well as NASA to place a commercial airlock on the orbiting outpost. In particular, it would be placed on the port side of Tranquility, where PMA-3 currently resides (it will be moved later next years as part of the station’s reconfiguration efforts for commercial crew vehicles).
According to Ars Technica, this $12–15 million airlock would not only allow commercial companies payloads access to space but also allow NASA to bring in large pumps and storage tanks for repair inside the lab. If approved, it would be launched as early as 2018 inside the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon capsule.
In July 2015, NanoRacks signed an agreement with Blue Origin to offer integration services on their New Shepard space vehicle.
According to Dickes, NanoRacks is continually growing their capabilities on both the International Space Station and now on Blue Origin’s New Shepard space vehicle.
“Currently, the focus with New Shepard is on internal payloads, as that is ideal for suborbital space,” Dickes said. “Radiation and harsh environment effects typically require long-term exposure. However, New Shepard is the perfect test bed for future NREP payloads – it offers a lower-cost solution to space-testing materials and electronic systems to ensure payload success upon launch to the [other NREP on the ISS].
Dickes said in regards to integration, it’s the same experts working on the ground to get the payloads ready for launch for both the ISS and Blue Origin. They follow strict safety guidelines and quality assurance procedures.
“We are really excited to be offering, finally, a seamless ladder for researchers from suborbital to a [crewed] orbiting space station!” Dickes said.
Eric Shear is a recent graduate from York University, honors bachelor in space science. Before that, Shear studied mechanical engineering at Tacoma Community College. During this time, Shear helped develop the HYDROS water-electrolysis propulsion system at Tethers Unlimited and led a microgravity experiment on the Weightless Wonder parabolic aircraft. Shear has worked for an extended period of time to both enable and promote space flight awareness. Shear agreed to contribute to SpaceFlight Insider’s efforts so that he could provide extra insight into interplanetary missions, both past and present.