SAN FRANCISCO — NanoRacks and Astrium North America plan to build the first commercial platform designed to be mounted on the exterior of the international space station to allow customers to test research payloads, sensors and electronic components in space.

The effort is moving at a rapid pace because the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the nonprofit organization NASA selected last summer to manage the space station’s U.S. National Laboratory, announced April 12 a $1.5 million deal to become the first customer. CASIS plans to solicit proposals in June from industry, academia and government organizations other than NASA for payloads to send to the external platform.

“Our goal at CASIS is speed,” said CASIS Interim Director Jim Royston. “The external platform brings a new opportunity to rapidly move stuff outside the space station. That will be particularly useful not only for life sciences research but also for materials testing, Earth observation, space situational awareness and space weather research.”

The NanoRacks-Astrium NA team plans to complete construction of the two versions of the platform in 2013 and begin conducting testing outside the space station in 2014, said Ron Dunklee, president and chief executive of Houston-based Astrium NA, a subsidiary of Astrium GmbH of Germany.

The external platform is a natural extension of the work NanoRacks has done since the company was formed in 2009 to offer customers inexpensive ways to conduct testing onboard the international space station, said Jeffrey Manber, managing director for Houston-based NanoRacks LLC. Although NASA has its own capability to test payloads outside the space station, the new external platform will offer “a commercial pathway to testing through a streamlined process focused on meeting customer needs,” he said.

Customers who sign up for the service will pay approximately $1.5 million to test any payload that measures 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters by 40 centimeters or less.

In return for that fee, NanoRacks and Astrium NA will complete all required NASA reviews and documentation, obtain transportation for payloads to travel to the space station, manage payload integration, pay for astronaut time, and return data or the payload to the customer.

Once the two versions of the external platform are built, NanoRacks and Astrium NA plan to send them to the space station. When an experiment arrives at the space station for testing, an astronaut will place the payload in the new platform and attach the platform to the Japanese Experiment Module’s airlock slide table. Then the airlock will be depressurized and its outer door will open to allow the external platform to slide outside, Manber said.

Once the external platform is outside, either the Japanese robotic arm or Canada’s two-armed Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator will lift the external platform from the slide table and attach it to the exterior of the Japanese Experiment Module. For certain missions, customers may opt to keep their payloads on the Canadian robotic arm. Whether a payload is mounted to the Japanese Experiment Module or on the Canadian robot arm, NanoRacks will ensure that electric power is provided to the payload and testing data are delivered to customers through a secure downlink or on a secure memory card, Manber said.

NanoRacks plans to market the external platform in the United States while Astrium NA’s European counterparts plan to offer it to European customers. The external platform is likely to appeal to customers developing sensors, satellite communications components, power systems and advanced materials for spaceflight, Manber said. The external platform may be useful for customers seeking to prove to government agencies and major corporations that new technology can withstand the harsh space environment, Dunklee said.

Inside the space station’s U.S. National Laboratory, NanoRacks has established two commercial research platforms that hold NanoLabs, cube-shaped modules that measure 10 centimeters on a side and provide electrical power and data transfer capabilities through a USB cable. NanoRacks plans to send to the space station a third NanoLab platform in late 2012 and a gravitational research centrifuge built by Astrium Space Transportation in 2013, Manber said.

To build the new external platform, Astrium NA will draw on the company’s extensive expertise in developing external payload platforms, said Carl Kuehnel, senior project manager for Astrium NA. Since 1999, Astrium Space Transportation has developed, integrated and operated 12 external carrier missions on the space shuttle and space station. Two Astrium cargo carriers, External Stowage Platforms 2 and 3, remain attached to the exterior of the space station.

Last summer, NASA selected CASIS to manage the space station’s U.S. National Laboratory and pledged $15 million in annual funding to solicit proposals for experiments and send payloads there.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...