WASHINGTON — By the end of 2014, Houston-based space services company NanoRacks plans to expand its payload accommodation services with the installation of an external platform at the international space station that can be booked by researchers on a commercial basis. 

“We finished manufacturing about a month ago … and it’s undergoing testing at the Johnson Space Center [in Houston] right now,” Jeffrey Manber, managing director of NanoRacks, said in a July 10 phone interview. 

The NanoRacks External Research Platform, which is about twice the size of a microwave oven, was made for NanoRacks by Astrium North America for about $10 million, Manber said. It will be launched to station aboard Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Cygnus space freighter during a cargo delivery mission slated to lift off Oct. 21, Manber said.

After that, “give it about a month and we should be open for business by the end of the year,” Manber said. The platform will be able to handle “about four to six customer payloads, depending on the size, at any one time.”

Once the platform is operational, payloads could be delivered by Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Dragon, Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Cygnus, Japan’s H-2 Transfer Vehicle, or Russia’s two space vehicles, the Progress freighter and Soyuz crew capsule. NanoRacks is free to book deliveries on any of these vehicles, Manber said.

Payloads bound for NanoRacks’ external platform will be subject to NASA safety and technical reviews, but Nanoracks will handle all interactions with the agency on the payload owner’s behalf, Manber said. The arrangement is similar to one the company already has with NASA under a nonreimbursable Space Act Agreement dating back to 2009, which allows the company to act as a full-service broker for experiments bound for the station’s interior.

The new external platform will be useful for testing, among other things, sensors, optics and materials, Manber said. Most payloads will have to be 10 centimeters in width and height and up to 40 centimeters deep, although adapters for nonstandard sizes will eventually be available, he said.

The NanoRacks platform will provide power and communications for any payload that requires it. Researchers will even have the option to get their experiments back — a luxury they would not have if they used a small satellite as a testbed. 

“We had one Air Force colonel telling us for 10 years he’s been sending small satellites up and a certain percentage of them fail,” Manber said. “He’s never been able to find out why they fail, so it would be huge for him to get something back.”

A typical payload could be returned to its owner about a year after launch using Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Dragon space capsule, Manber said. SpaceX is NASA’s only option for returning substantial amounts of cargo from station, since Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft — not to mention the unmanned cargo tugs operated by Russia, Europe and Japan — disintegrate during atmospheric re-entry.

NanoRacks’ external platform, like the station-based cubesat deployment services the company offers, will be based at the Japanese Experiment Module, Manber said. Experiments will be pushed out of the airlock by astronauts, then fitted to the module’s exterior either by the Remote Manipulator System, the Japanese-built robotic arm, or by the twin-armed, rail-mounted, Canadian-made Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator.

A key financier for the NanoRacks External Platform, in a roundabout way, is NASA. 

The Florida-based nonprofit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which by law gets $15 million a year from NASA to manage nonagency research aboard station, became NanoRacks’ first external platform customer in 2012, pledging $1.5 million to the effort and soliciting proposals for payloads.

On June 18, CASIS announced it had found its first payload for the NanoRacks testbed: an experimental digital-imaging sensor for Earth and space imaging designed by Daniel Batcheldor from the Florida Institute of Technology. The CASIS-sponsored sensor will be exposed to the space environment for 90 days, according to a press release from the group.

Other CASIS-sponsored payloads will follow, under the 2012 agreement that provided some of the cash NanoRacks needed to build the external platform, but Manber declined to identify other possible customers.

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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...