CubeSats, small cube-shaped satellites composed of units that measure 10 cm on each side and weigh less than 1.4 kg, are a cost-effective way to conduct research in space. CubeSats may be launched as secondary payloads, also known as rideshares, on an orbital launch vehicle or deployed directly into low Earth orbit (LEO) from the ISS. To date, close to 200 CubeSats have been launched from the ISS, most of these using a deployer built and operated by commercial services provider NanoRacks (see the Upward feature “Jumpstarting the CubeSat Revolution with Reliable Launch from the ISS“). As demand for nanosatellites (1–10 kg) grows and new applications emerge, NanoRacks and others are finding new pathways to meet increasing market demand.
In 2019, NanoRacks plans to begin operation of the first commercially owned airlock on the ISS—a module used to transfer payloads between the interior and exterior of the space station. The current airlock NanoRacks uses for CubeSat deployment is operated by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and only opens a few times a year. The new commercial airlock will increase capabilities and opportunities for CubeSat launch from the ISS.
In addition to the NanoRacks facilities, two other companies plan to offer small satellite launch services in LEO from the ISS or from commercial cargo carriers visiting the ISS. Both LaMont Aerospace in Houston and Seattle-based company bSpace will launch small satellites from visiting vehicles or new platforms attached to the exterior of the ISS. For launch from the ISS, the station’s robotic arm will transfer payloads from the visiting vehicle into one of the ExPRESS Logistics Carriers (an unpressurized payload platform attached to the ISS), where the satellites can be launched on demand independent of airlock cycles.
Craig Walton, a veteran of NASA’s Johnson Space Center and now president and CEO of LaMont Aerospace, said his company aims to address the issue of satellite customers waiting too long for rideshares. A key difference in his company’s business model is that it can support the launch of larger microsatellites (100–400 kg), as well as standard CubeSats (1–100 kg).
LaMont has also partnered with industry players to integrate propulsion systems into these nanosatellites and larger microsatellites, giving customers the ability to boost their satellites into higher orbits for longer operational life. “Now instead of your satellite dying in 12 months, you can boost it to realize a five- to seven-year lifecycle,” Walton explained.
David Burcham, bSpace co-founder and CEO, said his company is scheduled to have the first deployment of its ARQ modular launch system in 2020. The size of a motorcycle, ARQ will be able to rapidly deploy up to 200 small satellites per flight. Burcham emphasized that by not depending on either airlock cycles or crew time, bSpace will be able to offer customers minimal in-orbit wait times and hopes to support satellites with propulsion systems.
“Once we are flying, our goal is to partner with companies on station to extend their reach to customers,” Burcham said. “The future of the ISS and coming commercial stations is privatization, and we hope to be at the forefront.”