Bartolomeo platform
Artist's concept of the Bartolomeo platform installed on the exterior of the Columbus module on the ISS. Credit: Airbus Defence and Space

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — An Australian company that is developing an electric thruster is the first customer for an external research platform Airbus Defence and Space plans to install on the International Space Station by the end of 2018.

At a ceremony at the International Astronautical Congress here Sept. 28, Airbus signed an agreement with Neumann Space to host a payload on Airbus’ Bartolomeo platform. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Neumann Space is an Australian company developing a solar-electric thruster that uses metallic fuels rather than a gas like xenon. The company believes that the thruster will have a higher performance versus conventional electric thrusters and be able to use a wide range of metals as fuels.

The company will install an experimental payload on Bartolomeo, a platform that Airbus plans to mount on the exterior of the Columbus module for experiments that require access to the space environment.

Paddy Neumann, chief scientist and founder of Neumann Space, said the power requirements for the thruster made flying it on a cubesat or other small satellite impractical. “When we heard about the Bartolomeo platform, we leapt at the chance,” he said in a ceremony at Airbus’ booth at the IAC exhibit hall where the companies signed the agreement.

Neumann said his company has booked 100 kilograms of payload capacity on Bartolomeo, but expects to need only 25 to 30 kilograms. “We have, as part of the agreement, the right to sublet” excess capacity to other users, he said. “We’re looking to do this to help encourage other small operators, small startups, universities and other educational institutions to do more stuff in space.”

Airbus announced the Bartolomeo platform in June as part of what the company called an “end-to-end service” to provide efficient commercial access to the ISS. The company hopes to have the platform installed on the Columbus module by the end of 2018, but officials at the conference said they were still working out launch arrangements and were in discussions with NASA for the spacewalk that will be needed to install the platform outside Columbus.

Bartolmeo has the support of the European Space Agency. “We’re at a moment of inflection, a moment of change, from where the space station goes from a place where you spend money to being a place where you make money,” David Parker, ESA’s director for human and robotic exploration, said at the signing ceremony. “This project is an opportunity to fully exploit the potential of the space station.”

Bartolomeo will not be the first commercial external platform on the ISS. The NanoRacks External Payload Platform, operated by the American company NanoRacks, was installed on the external section of the Japanese Kibo module in August. Ironically, that platform was built for NanoRacks by Airbus.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...