Startup Signs NASA Agreement to Fly Mini Labs on Station

by

SAN FRANCISCO — Under a newly concluded agreement with NASA, the entrepreneurial space company NanoRacks is soliciting small university experiments and commercial research projects to fly aboard the international space station starting in mid-2010.

Houston-based NanoRacks LLC is led by Jeffrey Manber, the commercial space pioneer perhaps best known for running a short-lived company called MirCorp that leased the aging Russian Mir space station and ran it as a commercial platform until the Russian government deliberately deorbited it in 2001.

Manber’s newest venture, NanoRacks, announced plans Sept. 21 to send experiments to the international space station for installation in a platform the company calls a CubeLab, which houses as many as 16 experiments in standard CubeSats, the miniature satellites popular with university research teams.

“Cubesat is a known, open source, standardized platform,” said  Manber, NanoRacks’ managing director. “Rather than reinventing the wheel, we are using a proven platform, a proven piece of hardware for a new market.”

That market is likely to include educational institutions and private companies interested in conducting medical and biological research, materials testing or other microgravity research in the space station, Manber said.

Kentucky Space, a Lexington-based nonprofit consortium of universities and companies that lists Manber as a senior director, signed on as the first NanoRacks customer.

Kentucky Space has not yet determined what type of payload it will send to the space station with NanoRacks, but the group is considering a number of possibilities and may claim more than one CubeSat module, according to Kris Kimel, Kentucky Space founder and president of Kentucky Science and Technology Corp.

“We think pharmaceutical or biological experiments would fit nicely with this kind of model,” Kimel said.

In addition, Kentucky Space might send an experiment to NanoRack’s CubeLab to gather data on the basic environment of the space station’s laboratory module, such as the amount of vibration experiments experience, to prepare for future flight experiments, Kimel added.

NanoRacks officials have not released pricing details for the CubeLab modules, but Manber said the cost is likely to be similar to that of a CubeSat. “We do not have exact prices yet, but if you can afford a CubeSat, you can afford a CubeLab,” Manber said. CubeSats cost approximately $50,000 a piece, according to space industry officials.

On Sept. 9, Nanoracks signed a non-reimbursable Space Act Agreement with NASA, Manber said. Under that agreement, the space agency will provide NanoRacks with room in the space station’s U.S. laboratory module for the CubeLab. The agreement also gives NanoRacks authority to coordinate and conduct short- and long-term research on behalf of clients from private companies and educational institutions, Manber said.

NanoRacks engineers designed a liner that fits within the Express Rack, the standard payload architecture that stores space station experiments. Each liner holds a maximum of sixteen 1-kilogram CubeSat modules, which measure 10 centimeters on each side. Those modules plug into a standard USB connector, providing access to electrical power and data transfer. “Because we plug into the space station system, the data [from experiments] will come down on a daily basis,” Manber said.

While NanoRacks has not yet announced how it will carry payloads to the space station, company officials are discussing launch opportunities with U.S. and international launch providers. “We’re very small. Full up for us is only 16 kilograms,” Manber said. “I never thought I would say this, but space transportation is not an issue. For the first time, there are ample vehicles in the coming years going to space station.”

With the U.S., Russian, European and Japanese space agencies making plans to ferry cargo to the space station during the  years ahead, Manber said he is confident that NanoRacks will be able to offer customers not only initial access to the CubeLab, but also follow-on flights if they are pleased with the results. “You can fly twice in 2011,” he said.

In contrast, space transportation has been a significant issue in recent years for CubeSat developers. The increasing popularity of CubeSats among university researchers coupled with the lack of launch opportunities has triggered a hike in the cost of sending CubeSats into orbit.