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ISS cuebsat deployment
A pair of 3U CubeSats deploy from the International Space Station last month. The ISS has become a popular platform for launching small satellites, thanks in part to efforts by NanoRacks to develop satellite deployers and line up customers. (credit: NASA)

Making the most of the ISS

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What facilities are critical to the future of the International Space Station (ISS) as a research platform? Ask that to someone in the space industry, and you’ll get a range of answers: the mission control centers that run the station, the launch sites that send a steady stream of supplies and experiments to the station, and laboratories on Earth where scientists and engineers are developing experiments to send there and interpreting the results they get back from them.

“The first commercial success for the station is small satellite deployment,” said Manber.

What probably doesn’t come to mind is a nondescript office building in Nassau Bay, Texas, a block south of the Johnson Space Center campus. In an office suite in that building that looks like it was once used by an attorney or an accountant, the staff of NanoRacks is hard at work managing its payloads on the ISS. During a visit to the office last month, a conference room was serving as a makeshift mission control, with employees sitting at laptops downloading data from experiments on the ISS, while others were making preparations for new payloads that would soon fly to the station.

The small company—it has only about two dozen employees—found a niche in being able to fly small experiments for a wide range of customers, from high schools to corporations, quickly and inexpensively. Rob Alexander, operations center manager at NanoRacks, said during last month’s visit that they can get a NanoLab payload, about the size of a CubeSat, through the NASA safety approval process and launched in nine months and for about $65,000.

More recently, NanoRacks has expanded into launching small satellites from the ISS from the airlock on the Japanese lab module Kibo. NanoRacks initially used a Japanese deployer, but later developed its own using internal funding. Images showing CubeSats being ejected from the station have caused some to liken it to a cannon, but in fact, Alexander said, the satellites are deployed at a relatively modest speed of one meter per second.

That smallsat launching business is turning into a big one for NanoRacks. The company recently completed the deployment of more than 30 smallsats from the ISS that were ferried there on a Cygnus cargo spacecraft in January. Those satellites included 28 for Planet Labs, the San Francisco-based company that uses CubeSat-sized spacecraft to provide frequently-updated imagery of the Earth (see “Smallsat constellations: the killer app?”, The Space Review, July 1, 2013). Alexander said that while the company is still doing a larger number of internal experiments, smallsat deployment is now accounting for a greater share of revenues.

“The first commercial success for the station is small satellite deployment,” said Jeffrey Manber, managing director of NanoRacks, during a Space Transportation Association (STA) panel session about ISS research on Capitol Hill earlier this month. NanoRacks has more than 50 smallsats under contract for launch, with memoranda of understanding for 100 more, including satellites weighing up to 53 kilograms. Using the ISS for deploying smallsats, he said, helped Planet Labs come to market about two years faster than previously planned. “It’s a wonderful story.”

Manber, at the STA event and a panel session at the American Astronautical Society’s Goddard Memorial Symposium earlier this month outside Washington, emphasized that importance of the partnership it has with NASA, investing its own money to develop lab racks and smallsat deployers for the ISS while helping the agency make the most of the ISS.

“One of the things we’re showing is that you can have a true partnership with NASA,” he said at the Goddard panel. “We’re taking the investment the American public has made in the space station and applying commercial practices to utilize it in a cost-efficient and timely manner.”

“NASA is our landlord, NASA is our regulator, and at times NASA is a customer,” he said at the STA panel, noting that the agency accounts for about a fifth of the company’s revenues. “But they’re not a competitor.”

Other ISS research activities

Stories like those of NanoRacks may be essential to the long-term future of the ISS as a research platform, and as a stepping stone to later commercial stations in low Earth orbit, demonstrating the effectiveness of such stations for research and other applications.

Given the limited budget of CASIS, “we’re doing is trying to partner with commercial entities, NGOs, and academic institutions to leverage the amount of money that we have to maximize the science on the space station,” Johnson said.

The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the nonprofit established in 2011 to manage the portion of the ISS designated by law as a national laboratory, is working to ramp up its efforts to attract users to the station. “We’re matching opportunities and ideas with money to basically improve life here on Earth and increase the return on investment to the US taxpayer,” said Greg Johnson, a former astronaut who is now the president and executive director of CASIS, during a session on ISS research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Chicago last month.

The problem for CASIS, though, Johnson said at the STA event, is that CASIS itself doesn’t have a lot of money: its annual budget is $15 million, of which only a fraction is available for research grants. “So what we’re doing is trying to partner with commercial entities, NGOs, and academic institutions to leverage the amount of money that we have to maximize the science on the space station,” he said.

CASIS also wants to raise awareness about what can be, and has already been done, on the ISS. “CASIS was formed partly because we can do things that NASA can’t: we can market,” Johnson said at the AAAS meeting. CASIS has developed a brand called “Space Is In It”, with a seal that would be affixed to products derived from CASIS-supported ISS research. The first company to receive that product endorsement is Cobra Puma Golf, which is using the ISS to perform material sciences experiments.

NASA is also working to maximize its use of station facilities for research it performs or sponsors. “The majority of the crew time on the space station wasn’t available [for research] until 2011,” said Kirt Costello, assistant ISS program scientist at NASA, at the AAAS meeting. “Since that time, we have vastly increased the number of active investigations: on the order of 150 to 200 active investigations during any increment.”

That research, ISS program scientist Julie Robinson said at the STA panel earlier this month, covers a wide range of topics, from the study of microbial virulence in microgravity and telemedicine to waste recycling technology and water quality monitoring.

Working outside the station

Most of this research is, so far, being performed within the space station. However, there is growing interest in making use of the ISS as a platform for external experiments for astrophysical and earth sciences research. The best known example of such an experiment is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), the billion-dollar experiment to measure cosmic rays mounted on the station’s truss whose initial results may have detected evidence of dark matter (see “Shining light on dark matter”, The Space Review, February 24, 2014).

“It’s a very economical, practical way to go,” Davis said. “There’s a very promising future for remote sensing on the International Space Station.”

AMS, however, is not the only experiment mounted outside the ISS. The Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean (HICO) camera was flown to the ISS on the first Japanese HTV cargo spacecraft mission to the station in 2009 and mounted on the exterior of the Kibo module. HICO is a version of airborne hyperspectral imagers that can measure conditions along coastlines ranging from vegetation to water clarity.

“Imaging the coastal ocean from space is an extremely difficult problem. It’s probably the most difficult earth remote sensing problem that we have,” said Curtiss Davis of Oregon State University at the AAAS meeting. The coastal ocean is a very dark target, he said, and the desire to look though the ocean surface to see features on the problem is particularly challenging.

HICO started as an experiment run by the Office of Naval Research and is now supported by NASA. Since its installation on the ISS, the instrument has taken more than 9,000 “scenes” of data, Davis said.

HICO is also a pathfinder of sorts for other remote sensing experiments being planned for the ISS in the coming years. While the station is not in a sun-synchronous orbit traditionally used for remote sensing missions, its orbit is still useful for a wide range of applications, including observations of the tropics, ocean currents, and atmospheric properties, he said. The station also provides a platform with abundant power and cooling for experiments.

“It’s a very economical, practical way to go,” Davis said. “There’s a very promising future for remote sensing on the International Space Station.”

Challenges to station research

That promising future, though, for both external and internal experiments on the station is not without challenges. Some of those are endemic to almost any space-related program, like limited budgets and resources, but others are specific to the station itself.

One problem is the perception that ISS research is inferior in some way to either terrestrial research or space research by robotic missions. In an essay published in Slate last month, science writer Charles Seife criticized the quality of ISS research. “Look through the list of experiments run on Shuttle-Mir or on the ISS and you’ll see that most of them are published in third- or fourth-tier journals, if they’re published at all,” he wrote, in sharp contrast to the “mountains of seminal publications” that have come from data generated by robotic probes.

While not directly addressing Seife’s criticism, NASA’s Robinson said that understanding the “pace of science” is key to interpreting the results that have come from ISS research so far. Getting something flown to the ISS can take up to several years she, said, plus several years to interpret and publish the results, and even longer for the broader scientific community to apply those results.

“Science, unfortunately, is not moving at the same pace as NASA as an agency likes to move,” she said, “but this is the pace of science agencies, this is the pace of university laboratories and university research careers.”

There’s also the question of just how well the ISS is being utilized. At the AAAS meeting, Johnson said that the station wasn’t yet being fully utilized. “It’s hard to get mass, volume, and astronaut time to maximize all the possibilities,” he said.

By some metrics, only about 70 to 75 percent of the station’s total research capacity is being utilized. Robinson said those metrics are based on occupancy of racks on the station. “When you hear 70 percent utilization or 75 percent utilization, it’s occupancy, not utilization,” she said. “We’re oversubscribed in crew time: we actually have more things people would like to do than the crew has time to help with.”

“When you hear 70 percent utilization or 75 percent utilization, it’s occupancy, not utilization,” Robinson said. “We’re oversubscribed in crew time: we actually have more things people would like to do than the crew has time to help with.”

There’s also the question of access to the station. Right now, current cargo vehicles are providing enough transportation of supplies and experiments to the station so that research is limited by crew time instead, Robinson said. However, the fiscal year 2015 budget proposal states that NASA will eliminate one cargo mission to the station, and seeks $100 million in additional funding to “prevent additional Commercial Resupply Service (CRS) flight deletions.”

That reduction in flights is not in the current CRS contracts with Orbital Sciences and SpaceX but would be in any follow-on contracts, likely in 2017 or 2018, said ISS director Sam Scimemi at the STA panel. If demand for ISS access materializes as NASA currently plans, he warned, there will be “conflicts in demand for resources” because of limited cargo capability. “We’re going to be in a resource conflict environment.”

A new issue that has emerged just in the last few weeks is the potential for disruption to ISS operations because of the crisis between Russia and Ukraine. Although NASA officials have stated that there’s been no effect yet on ISS operations because of the crisis (see “A time of danger and opportunity for US-Russian space relations”, The Space Review, March 10, 2014), many still worry that there could be effects on the station should the crisis worsen.

At the STA panel on March 14, though, Scimemi said there were no issues at that time. “I know the events in Ukraine have been a concern for many people, but things are very harmonious in the program,” he said.

Extending the ISS to 2024 and beyond

The announcement by NASA in January that it intents to seek an extension of ISS operations to at least 2024 (see “Four more years”, The Space Review, January 13, 2014) means that, should NASA’s international partners go along, the ISS will be available for research for at least another decade. That four-year extension, said Robinson, would increase internal, crew-tended research time by 45 percent, and external research time by 90 percent.

“I think we have noticed a slight uptick [in interest] since the announcement of extending to 2024,” NASA’s Costello said last month.

At last month’s AAAS meeting, CASIS’s Johnson said it was still “too early to call” on whether the extension would attract more researchers. “But, logically, it makes sense” that an extended lifetime for the station would lure more researchers to the station, he said, adding that he’d like to see the ISS extended to 2028, the current maximum date based on technical analyses of the lifetime of the station.

“I think we have noticed a slight uptick since the announcement of extending to 2024,” NASA’s Costello said last month, said that interest has primarily come from external payload projects that could benefit the most from an extended lifetime since it will be several years before they fly to the station. “Since the announcement of the extension to 2024, we have seen renewed interest in that arena.”

Johnson added that the extended ISS lifetime could benefit commercial research as well. “From six years to ten years, you get commercial partners really interested who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in investing their money,” he said.

Manber, speaking at the Goddard symposium, had a similar view. “For perhaps the first time, there’s extraordinary private capital interest in space,” he said, noting that those investors want long-term projections of the market as part of their decision-making process. “The beauty of the space station being there for ten years is that you can plan, as a small company, for the long-term.”

Manber said he doesn’t necessarily plan that far out, but it’s clear NanoRacks is very active in the near term. Manber said he estimates the company will deploy 60 to 80 satellites from the ISS this year. It’s also looking at ways to accommodate satellites that want to fly in different orbits with propulsion systems, something that is more challenging from the NASA safety approval standpoint. The company is also developing an external research platform with Astrium (now Airbus Defence and Space) that will fly to the ISS later this year.

That makes for a busy, and successful, company. “I sometimes have to shake my head at how well we’re doing,” Manber said.