Later this year, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will take off from central Florida, carrying a large metal cup destined to be attached to the outside of the International Space Station. The hardware is a first-of-its-kind commercial airlock, designed to get payloads and other materials from inside the pressurized space station out into the vacuum of space.
The airlock is the product of aerospace company Nanoracks, which helps private customers get access to space. Up until now, the company has created smaller space-bound hardware, such as standardized research boxes that customers can use to conduct experiments in the microgravity environment of the space station. It’s also developed its own satellite deployers that are used to shoot tiny spacecraft out into orbit — either from the ISS or from smaller free-flying spaceships.
But this commercial airlock — called Bishop — is perhaps the most ambitious piece of hardware that Nanoracks has built yet. Shaped like a bell jar, the metal airlock will attach to an available port on the outside of the ISS, creating a small rounded bump on the exterior of the orbiting lab. A series of clamps and mechanisms on the edges of the port will latch onto the airlock, ensuring there is an airtight seal. Astronauts can then store items in the airlock by opening up the port’s hatch.
“Once it’s there, it’s just extra real estate until we want to use it,” Mike Lewis, Nanoracks’ chief innovation officer who provided a virtual tour of Bishop, tells The Verge. “We can use it in a number of ways, the first of which is to bring things outside.”
When payloads are mounted inside Bishop, astronauts will close the port’s hatch and suck air out of the airlock through a pump. Then, a robotic arm on the outside of the space station can grab hold of Bishop from the outside and remove it from the port, exposing the items inside to the vacuum of space. It’s a bit like someone removing a rounded cap from their head. Once any planned activities are done, the arm can place the airlock back on the port again, where Bishop latches back on and creates another airtight seal. “It’s a lot like on a submarine when you’re going out into the water, except the difference is you’re going out into the vacuum of space,” Lewis says.
Currently, there are three active airlocks on the space station — two that allow people to depart the station and one airlock in the Japanese Experiment Module that is used for releasing payloads into space. Until now, the Japanese airlock has been the only way Nanoracks has deployed its customers’ satellites into space. With Bishop, the company has another option for getting things out the door, one that’s more than five times the current volume of the Japanese airlock, according to the company. And that means even more customers can get into space in a timely fashion, clearing up backlogs created by only having one airlock available for deployments.
One big goal of the airlock is to have it double as a satellite deployer. Customers can attach deployment boxes to the inside of Bishop, with their satellites tucked inside. Then, when the opening of the airlock is exposed to space, the deployers will shoot out their satellites, putting them in orbit around Earth. The things that shoot out of Bishop don’t have to be long-term satellites either. NASA has a deal to pack trash items from the ISS inside containers, which will shoot out from the airlock into space. The containers are meant to fall out of orbit quickly and then burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. “The nice side effect is it makes a big beautiful shooting star,” Lewis says.
Bishop can also be used to simply expose experiments to the vacuum of space. One customer, a Japanese startup called GITAI, will test out its new robotic arm inside Bishop. That way, the company can see how its technology holds up in either the vacuum of space or in a pressurized environment. Nanoracks also envisions mounting research payloads on the airlock to observe parts of Earth from space. The company included adapters on the outside of Bishop so that payloads and experiments can be attached to the airlock’s exterior. Bishop could even be used to house tools that astronauts might need when doing spacewalks outside the ISS.
The company is currently finishing up the airlock and doing final testing, with the aim of shipping the hardware to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the next two weeks. Bishop is then scheduled for launch on SpaceX’s next cargo mission to the space station, which is currently slated for mid-November. When the Dragon reaches the ISS, the station’s robotic arm will take Bishop out of the trunk and attach it to its final parking spot.
The airlock gets its name from the bishop in chess. The name is meant to reflect the various maneuvers Bishop can make when attached to the station’s robotic arm. It’s also a nod to Nanoracks’ strategy in the future. The company has even bolder dreams of creating its own free-floating space stations made from recycled fuel tanks of rockets. Such stations could also have similar airlocks, and Bishop could even be moved from the ISS to one of those facilities one day.
For now, Nanoracks is simply focused on helping its customers get their payloads into space as quickly as possible, which is why they created Bishop in the first place. “Really the best reason to make this commercially and not through a government program was that we wanted it, and we wanted it now,” Lewis says. “We saw a need for this, both in our customer base, as well as our future plans.”
Correction: An original version of this article misstated the movement of the bishop in chess and has been corrected. We regret the error.