Technical Problem Delays Space Station Satellite Deployments


WASHINGTON — A technical problem with a cubesat dispenser on the international space station has halted the deployment of the latest batch of small satellites on the station until as late as early next year.

In a Sept. 3 statement, Houston-based NanoRacks said it was continuing to study a problem with a “non-performing” cubesat deployer on the station. The problem was first noted in an Aug. 22 ISS status report from NASA, which stated that multiple attempts to deploy cubesats during the previous day were unsuccessful for “unspecified reasons.” The problem occurred after 10 of 32 satellites delivered to the station in July had been released.

Abby Dickes, a NanoRacks spokeswoman, said that the problem with the deployer was electrical, and not mechanical, in nature, but declined to go into greater detail. The company said that while it will continue to make efforts to deploy the current satellites, it will also send a new command box to the station on a future resupply mission that should allow cubesat deployments to resume in early 2015.

Cubesat launch has become the biggest market for NanoRacks, which started by offering internal lab space on the station. Deployers loaded with satellites arrive at the station on cargo spacecraft and are transferred to the airlock in the Japanese Kibo module. That module’s robotic arm grapples the deployer and moves it into position for deployment.

Beyond NanoRacks, the company most affected by the deployment problem is San Francisco-based Planet Labs, which has used the ISS to launch most of its satellites. Twenty-eight of the 32 satellites delivered to the station in July with the latest flight of Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Cygnus cargo tug belong to Planet Labs, and 18 of them have not yet been released, a Planet Labs official confirmed.

“Our constellation plans have taken into account launch delays from the very beginning, so the delay is unfortunate, but not detrimental,” Mike Safyan, director of launch and regulatory issues for Planet Labs, said in a Sept. 3 email. The company plans to deliver another group of satellites, named Flock-1d, to the ISS on the next Cygnus mission, slated for launch in mid-October.