NanoRacks LLC is partnering with Boeing to build bigger airlock for ISS. The U.S. segment of the ISS will soon boast an airlock that can handle as many as three times the number of small satellites it can launch from the International Space Station in a single airlock cycle.

The Boeing/NanoRacks LLC project is working to build the first privately funded commercial airlock. The ISS crew is expected to begin installing the new module after it is received, planned for 2019. NanoRacks plans to handle the launch manifesting of the new module itself.

NanoRacks has been deploying small satellites, such as “breadbox”-sized CubeSats, from the Japanese airlock on the Kibō module, but can only deploy them one at a time, using a robotic arm to remove them from the airlock and send them into orbit. The new module will be able to release three small satellites at once, or one as large as a refrigerator.

The Kibō airlock is only opened five to ten times a year, and much of its workload is centered on experiments for the NASA, ESA, and JAXA agenda, leaving NanoRacks with a deployment backlog they hope to overcome with the new airlock.

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Boeing will build and install the hardware that connects the ISS to the airlock, called the Passive Common Berthing Mechanism. There’s already a hatch in the U.S. module where the new airlock is to be installed. Astronauts will also be able to use the Canadarm2 robotic arm to utilize the Boeing/NanoRacks airlock.

The airlock, while a permanent module, will have the capability of being relocated to other in-orbit craft, such as new space stations that have yet to be built.

This airlock will be the first privately owned airlock in space, part of a long-term plan to shift the ISS to private control by the mid-2020s as space exploration and experimentation are gradually shifted to commercial enterprises.

NanoRacks also built the first commercial gateway-and-return, the NanoRacks External Platform (NREP), allowing private companies (such as those that build sensors and cameras, among others) to deploy a payload to space and return it to Earth for evaluation to determine the effects of microgravity, radiation, and the other trials of space. The NREP was installed in August of 2016.

The airlock should help the ISS better meet the demand of the private sector, which is investing heavily in space communications technology as smaller satellites become more affordable. Most efforts to facilitate private satellite deployment are backlogged, including those slated to be released by the ISS.
“The installation of NanoRacks’ commercial airlock will help us keep up with demand,” said Boeing International Space Station program manager Mark Mulqueen said in a statement. “This is a big step in facilitating commercial business on the ISS.”
“We are entering a new chapter in the space station program where the private sector is taking on more responsibilities. We see this as only the beginning and are delighted to team with our friends at Boeing,” said Jeffrey Manber, CEO of NanoRacks.
NanoRacks LLC was formed in 2009 to provide commercial hardware and services for the U.S. National Laboratory on board the International Space Statio. NanoRacks’ main office is in Houston, Texas, near the NASA Johnson Space Center.

 

David S. Lewis

Lewis has been a writer, journalist, and editor for over a decade; his work has covered politics, policy, tech, and more. He is the co-founder and contributing editor of The Downlink Blog, a trade publication which covers advances in commercial space-based industry.

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