ISS Producing Some Revenue From Commercial Projects

By Frank Morring, Jr.
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

Cubesats will be packed into the dispenser's eight spring-loaded tubes for the ride to orbit, according to Michael Johnson, the company's chief technology officer. The ISS crew will send them outside through the airlock, and use the robotic arm to move the dispenser into position on the Earth-facing side of the station. The satellites will be deployed into a retrograde orbit below the station to avoid recontact, says Johnson.

From there, they will function for as long as a year before reentering.

Nanoracks is charging $85,000 per 10-cc cubesat “U” for the service, and expects to launch as many as 38 of the units on the first mission. It has invested about $500,000 developing the hardware, and is taking advantage of free NASA transport to orbit.

In addition to the traditional academic payloads that formed the company's initial market, some of the commercial multilaunch customers are attracted by the relatively low cost of access to orbit, and some of them are developing Earth-observation and other businesses that will require constellations of the tiny spacecraft.

Nanoracks isn't the only company gearing up to sell accommodation on the station. Teledyne Brown Engineering Inc., which has built several flight-releasable attachment mechanisms (Frams) for the ISS exterior, plans to launch a pointable Fram-based Earth-observation platform to the station next year and sell space on it under a cooperative agreement with NASA (AW&ST June 18, 2012, p. 16).

But after that, congressional hopes to commercialize part of the U.S. accommodation on the ISS have yet to be realized. The nonprofit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (Casis), chosen by NASA to manage the U.S. National Laboratory that Congress set aside for commercial work, has attracted only $2 million in outside funds. Created by Space Florida, the state's aerospace-business development agency, Casis has relied on $15 million in annual NASA funding to hire a staff of 31 and organize 40 National Lab flight projects to date.

Casis has issued three request for proposals (RFP) for station research, and has funded six projects in protein crystal growth and two in materials science. An RFP on stem-cell research closes July 25.

Duane Ratliff, chief operating officer and NASA liaison at Casis, says the new organization shifted six months ago from a “membership” approach requiring participants to “buy in” to a “partnership” format of sharing necessary resources. The nonprofit still lacks an executive director, and has been feeling its way into a field long dominated by NASA's mission-oriented needs.

“We need to be able to translate both their findings and some of the questions that haven't been asked as to where the terrestrial interests may lie,” Ratliff says. We need the answers to the very fundamental questions of what it is that microgravity can provide with respect to developing product applications, intellectual property, or others.”

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