Now Even Kids Can Afford to Use the Space Station

A new company makes it easier to get your payloads to orbit.

Among NanoRacks’ customers: Three New York fifth graders who created an experiment on fish-egg development that arrived on the station in 2011. (Erica Miller / Ballston Spa Life)
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Johnson says, “The good news is we re-flew the science that didn’t get activated…very quickly, within four to six months,” something that could never have happened in the shuttle era.

Manber and his colleagues have worked hard to establish their company’s reputation among scientists and educators hoping to do research in microgravity, but to win the small-satellite market, it took only a single photograph. In October 2012, NanoRacks deployed a cubesat—one in a group of three—and the stunning photo of the tiny satellites floating past the station’s solar panels with Earth below hit the Internet. The company’s phones haven’t stopped ringing since.

That has Manber breathing a sigh of relief. “We lost so much money deploying that satellite,” he says. “The NASA safety office was being so careful because it was the first one,” and the first of anything that happens in space requires “safety experts, safety consultants, endless meetings, meetings after meetings after meetings.” But little cubesats can do all the things big satellites do—Earth imaging for environmentalists, surveying for oil and gas companies, communications for soldiers in remote war zones—and now, demand for the service has created a backlog. NanoRacks spent the last year developing a high-volume, spring-loaded launcher that can carry 48 units, designed so that, if need be, 16 launchers can fit in the airlock of the Japanese Kibo module, from which the cubesats are deployed. The company has 34 satellites scheduled for the airlock’s December opening. “I believe it’s a world record in terms of satellites launched at one time,” says Johnson. (The real estate aboard Kibo, as well as the use of the airlock, is part of an exchange that NASA negotiated with station partners during the shuttle era. The space shuttle ferried modules, people, and supplies in return for certain access and services.)

NanoRacks has become part of the rising tide lifting the commercial space industry. “This is what I’ve been waiting for for 25 years,” says Manber. “It’s a wonderful period for space business. We have reached what myself and others have worked for—government is a regulator, a landlord, and not a competitor, but a customer.” Companies no longer have to depend on the few, irregular shuttle launches for transportation to space. “We have multiple access,” he continues. “We’ve had 10 payloads brought down on the Soyuz.”

NanoRacks is helping to stimulate space commerce. The company recently awarded $2,000 in seed funding for a low-cost, open-source NanoLab to Infinity Aerospace. Infinity came up with a sleek, transparent cube form built around a circuit board wired with hundreds of instruments and sensors to choose from. Anyone with $1,999 can buy a one-unit version, select instruments from a menu, and program an experiment. It’s called Ardulab (from Arduino, the name of the circuit board included). If you’re ready to buy, just add it to your cart on Infinity’s website. NanoRacks sent the first Ardulab to the station aboard Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo ship in September.

Another NanoRacks business partner, Nanosatisfi, is an online broker for access to programmable cubesats. For as little as $125, customers can buy time on one of the cubesats that NanoRacks plans to deploy from the station in December.

These armchair mission commanders take online courses to learn how to code instructions to the satellite’s computer, like “Take this image at this location and this time” or “Measure this magnetic field.” When everything is ready, they click the “Deploy to Satellite” button on Nanosatisfi’s website. Nanosatisfi checks the program to make sure it doesn’t do anything dangerous, then transmits it to the satellite. When the customers are notified that the data has been downloaded from the cubesat, they can log in to see it.

Nanosatisfi founder Peter Platzer says that NanoRacks helped “with the massive amounts of paperwork that is required to launch to the ISS. You deliver a satellite to them, they do a whole bunch of tests and certifications for it, and then they deliver it to NASA.” He continues, “Jeffrey [Manber] has not only taken advantage of the breaking of structures, he’s in there taking a crowbar [and] increasing the fissures.”

Today NanoRacks is preparing for its next foray into station research: exposing experiments to the harsh environment of space. The External Platform, being built by Astrium in Houston, Texas, will sit outside the Kibo module within reach of the robotic arm, so changing experiments won’t require spacewalks. Just like the racks inside, the platform will hold the standard cube forms connected through USB ports.

Johnson expects most customers for this service to be satellite manufacturers. The insurers of multimillion-dollar spacecraft generally won’t cover parts that haven’t proved they can withstand space travel. It’s a Catch-22 that inhibits innovation in satellites. With the NanoRacks External Platform, satellite builders can orbit parts and electronics at a low cost. After the parts have been flight-tested, they can be returned for study, something revolutionary in the satellite field.

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