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NASA okays commercial airlock for space station

Artist’s concept of the NanoRacks airlock attached to the space station’s Tranquility module. Credit: NanoRacks

A commercial airlock built in partnership by NanoRacks and Boeing will be connected to the International Space Station in 2019, the companies announced Monday, after the proposed project won approval from NASA managers.

NanoRacks plans to deploy small commercial satellites and CubeSats from the airlock, reducing the workload currently occupying time on the smaller equipment airlock inside the Japanese Kibo laboratory module. Only half of the Kibo airlock’s capacity is allocated to NASA and commercial clients — the rest goes to Japan.

“This partnership is an important step in the commercial transition we’ll see on the ISS in coming years,” said Mark Mulqueen, Boeing’s ISS program manager. “Utilizing a commercial airlock to keep up with the demand of deployment will significantly streamline our process.”

NanoRacks has arranged for the launch of more than 375 payloads to the space station since 2009, including more than 100 CubeSats released from a deployer mounted on the end of the Japanese robotic arm outside Kibo for commercial customers, universities and NASA.

Houston-based NanoRacks also has an external platform outside Kibo, where scientists can test sensors, electronics and other equipment in the harsh environment of space.

The commercial airlock will launch inside the unpressurized trunk of a SpaceX Dragon cargo craft, then attach to a port on the station’s Tranquility module with the Canadian-built robotic arm.

“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,” said Sam Scimemi, director of the ISS division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We hope this new airlock will allow a diverse community to experiment and develop opportunities in space for the commercial sector.”

The new airlock will triple the number of small satellites that can be deployed in a single cycle, according to Boeing.

Artist’s concept of the NanoRacks airlock attached to the space station’s Tranquility module. Credit: NanoRacks

Astronauts inside the station can also assemble payloads from components delivered to the complex in bags, then put them through the NanoRacks airlock, which can handle larger packages than supported by the current Kibo passageway.

Boeing is providing the passive common berthing mechanism, a connecting ring to install the new port on the Tranquility module, plus unspecified engineering services required for developing and manufacturing of the airlock, according to NanoRacks.

“We are very pleased to have Boeing joining with us to develop the airlock module,” said Jeffrey Manber, CEO of NanoRacks. “This is a huge step for NASA and the U.S. space program, to leverage the commercial marketplace for low-Earth orbit, on Space Station and beyond, and NanoRacks is proud to be taking the lead in this prestigious venture.”

Boeing is also NASA’s lead contractor for the entire space station, providing engineering support for all of the lab’s U.S. modules.

NanoRacks said the airlock could be detached from the ISS and placed on another platform in orbit.

“The NanoRacks airlock module is the next logical step in the successful line of NanoRacks’ commercial payload facilities,” said Brock Howe, head of the airlock project at NanoRacks. “This airlock module will provide a broad range of capabilities to our payload customers and expand greatly on the commercial utilization of the station — and I look forward to leading the team at NanoRacks on this next venture.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Source: Space Flight

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NASA okays commercial airlock for space station

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