JAXA Eyes Launching More Cubesats from Space Station

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SAN FRANCISCO — Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) officials, pleased with their recent success in launching the first cubesats from the international space station (ISS), are interested in turning that historic event into a routine occurrence.

On Oct. 4, JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and JAXA’s flight control team at Tsukuba Space Center used the Kibo Japanese Experimental Module’s airlock and robotic arm to launch five of the miniature satellites. “Based on the results and analyses of the mission, we would like to start the discussion to conduct and operate satellite deployment missions on a regular basis,” a JAXA official said in an Oct. 19 email to SpaceNews. If possible, JAXA would like to begin working with its international partners to identify additional cubesats that would be ready to launch from the space station within a year, the official added.

NASA officials, who have been actively engaged in finding rides into orbit for cubesats developed by educational and nonprofit institutions, said they are intrigued by the new launch capability. “As part of the standard interactions with our ISS partners, we are always considering options to utilize capabilities of the ISS including the new JAXA deployment capability,” said Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems program in Washington.

In 2010, NASA began the Cubesat Launch Initiative, which identifies cubesats that address space agency goals, such as science, exploration, education or technology development, and creates a prioritized list of promising missions. NASA then seeks rides for those missions onboard space agency launches, including ISS cargo delivery flights conducted by commercial firms. As NASA officials begin looking for cubesats that could be launched from ISS, they “will consider cubesats from NASA, the Defense Department, the Cubesat Launch Initiative and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS),” Crusan said Oct. 25. In 2011, NASA selected CASIS, a Florida-based nonprofit, to manage the space station’s U.S. National Laboratory and promote its research capabilities.

Private companies and cubesat developers in nations that are not ISS partners can turn to the commercial market for help launching cubesats from ISS. For example, NanoRacks LLC worked with NASA and JAXA on behalf of Vietnam’s FPT University to obtain transportation to the space station on Japan’s HTV-3 cargo ship as well as certification and integration of hardware to meet ISS requirements for the Oct. 4 launch of its cubesat. NanoRacks has signed contracts to send three additional satellites to the space station for launch through the Kibo module, Jeffrey Manber, managing director of the Houston-based company, said in an Oct. 22 email. While no firm schedule has yet been announced, the cubesats are likely to be launched from the orbiting outpost sometime during the spring or summer of 2013, Manber said.

NanoRacks charges customers about $100,000 to obtain a ride to the space station for a 1-kilogram cubesat and approval to conduct the mission. Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corp., the two firms selected to ferry cargo to ISS as part of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program, also have expressed interest in carrying cubesats. SpaceX arrived at the space station Oct. 10 for the first of 12 scheduled cargo-delivery flights. That mission did not include cubesats, said Katherine Nelson, spokeswoman for Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX, but the company “will continue to support the launch of cubesats whenever the mission is feasible for us and our primary customer.” She declined to comment on the price commercial customers would pay to send a 1-kilogram satellite to ISS in the Dragon cargo capsule. Dulles, Va.-based Orbital is scheduled to launch three cubesats later this year during the maiden voyage of its Antares medium-lift rocket.

A single cubesat measures 10 centimeters on a side. On Oct. 4, JAXA launched four single cubesats and a double cubesat built by students at Japan’s Tohoku and Wakayama universities. The single cubesats were built at Japan’s Meisei Electric Co., Japan’s Fukuoka Institute of Technology, FPT University and San Jose State University with support from the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., and AAC Microtec of Sweden.

“This has been a great learning experience for all of us who led this effort: NASA, industry and academia,” said Periklis Papadopoulos, San Jose State University aerospace engineering professor and one of two principal investigators for TechEdSat, the school’s cubesat. “Once we’ve been through the process we understand better both the ISS and technology requirements to make these successful and valuable missions at reasonable cost. Dedicated cubesat deployments from ISS open the horizon to a multitude of demonstration flights and commercial applications not to mention the tremendous educational outreach component.”