A brand-new air lock is set to be installed on the International Space Station in the next few years — but this one will be commercially owned. NASA has accepted a proposal from spaceflight company NanoRacks to attach the first ever commercially funded air lock, which enables objects to safely pass from the inside of the station out into the vacuum of space. The new addition will allow NanoRacks to deploy even more satellites and commercial payloads from the ISS in order to meet the growing demand from its customer base.
Established in 2009, NanoRacks is focused on helping others utilize “the low-Earth orbit region of space.” To that end, the organization helps companies, government agencies, and schools conduct experiments on the International Space Station, as well as deploy small satellites from the ISS. NanoRacks already has a satellite deployer on the space station, but it is reliant on the air lock on the Japanese Kibo module. The deployer is extended out into space via that Japanese robotic arm when the air lock is open.
The problem is that the Japanese air lock isn’t that big. It’s the perfect size for deploying CubeSats, standardized satellites that are about the size of a breadbox, as well as slightly larger payloads that are about the size of a microwave. But NanoRacks’ customers have been eager to deploy even larger satellites. “Our customers were coming to us saying they’d like to fly bigger satellites or payloads, and deploy them off the station,” Brock Howe, the head of the air lock project for NanoRacks, tells The Verge. “And these were bigger than what we can currently fit thorough the Japanese airlock.”
Access to the air lock is also limited, according to Howe. The air lock on the Kibo module is the only method for deploying small satellites from the station, and it is only opened five to 10 times a year. Some of those openings are reserved for NASA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, which operates the air lock, while just a few openings are reserved for NanoRacks. This limited availability has created a backlog in deployments for the company.
“So we thought to ourselves: ‘Why don’t we look into designing and building our own air lock?’ And away we went,” says Howe. NanoRacks approached NASA with the idea, and the space agency officially accepted the project.
NanoRacks will be working with Boeing to develop the air lock. The plan is for the aluminum dome-shaped unit to launch on a NASA cargo mission sometime in 2019, and then be attached to a port on the station’s Tranquility module. There’s already a hatch in place on the end of Tranquility that blocks the inside of the station from the vacuum of space. Astronauts will be able to open this hatch to place satellites or other research payloads inside the air lock. Once the payloads are inside, the air lock will depressurize and all the air will be pumped out. Then the station’s Canadian robotic arm will detach the air lock from the ISS and extend it out into space. From here, satellites can be deployed into orbit or research experiments can be tested in the vacuum of space.
This air lock will have five times the volume of the Japanese air lock, so satellites the size of a refrigerator can potentially be deployed this way. It also allows NanoRacks to deploy even more satellites at one time. “Instead of doing the microwave-sized satellites one at a time, we can do three or four of those at one time on one airlock cycle,” says Howe. “So we can do it a lot more efficiently than what can be done right now.”
The air lock also poses an opportunity for companies to do technology demonstrations in space. Companies looking to commercialize a space sensor or camera can test how their technologies hold up in lower Earth orbit. Restraints inside the air lock can hold down these technologies as they’re exposed to the vacuum. “It’s opening a door to space,” says Howe. Once those technologies are flight-proven, the companies then have an easier time selling and marketing their hardware.
The NanoRacks air lock is just one of many commercial vehicles that are slowly making their way to the International Space Station. Currently, a private inflatable space habitat called BEAM — Bigelow Expandable Activity Module — is already attached to the Tranquility module, and astronauts have been periodically going inside it to see how it is holding up in space. Built by Bigelow Aerospace, BEAM has been performing well, and there are hints that the module will soon be used every day by the astronauts on the station. Building off of that success, NASA has said it will allow companies to attach their own habitat modules to the ISS in coming years.
It’s all part of NASA’s plan to turn the ISS into a commercial-friendly outpost, before eventually turning over the orbiting lab to the private sector in the mid-2020s. “We want to utilize the space station to expose the commercial sector to new and novel uses of space, ultimately creating a new economy in low-Earth orbit for scientific research, technology development and human and cargo transportation,” Sam Scimemi, director of the ISS Division at NASA headquarters, said in a statement. “We hope this new airlock will allow a diverse community to experiment and develop opportunities in space for the commercial sector.”