CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida, the International Space Station now offers a great new piece of hardware.
On Monday (December 21st), the first commercial air chamber ever sent to the International Space Station (ISS) was attached to its outer side. The new structure is a bell-shaped air chamber designed to transfer cargo and other materials from the station to an external vacuum.
Built by Nanoracks, a Houston-based airline known for facilitating access to space via research boxes for scientific experiments or small satellite gliders, the airlock is not only the first of its kind, but also the first large-scale space hardware. the company built.
Video: Nanoracks Bishop Airlock installed on the space station
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#BishopAirlock: Now connected to @Space_Station pic.twitter.com/3wx65BlI31December 21, 2020
2000 lbs. (907 kilograms) a piece of metal – called Bishop – is named after a pointed, diagonally movable chess. The nickname represents the agility of the module when attached to the station’s robotic arm, but it also represents Nanoracks’ plans for the future. (The company doesn’t stop at one airlock and even hopes to eventually launch its own space station.)
Bishop was launched into the station by NASA’s recent CRS-21 supply mission, which exploded from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 6, tucked into the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft, the airlock attached to the station’s exterior on Monday (21 .December), and will be powered sometime in early 2021.
Once active, astronauts will be able to store objects in the air chamber by opening openings inside the station. When the time comes to deploy, they will seal the opening, and then weapons operators at NASA’s Houston Mission Control Center will use the station’s robotic arm to remove the airlock, deploy the payload, and then reconnect the airlock to the same port.
Bishop is not alone; the station currently uses three more air locks – two that astronauts use when entering and exiting the space station, and a third to deploy small payloads into space. That air chamber, housed in a Japanese experimental module, is currently the only way Nanoracks can shoot its customers ’satellites into space.
That will change; The Bishop Air Chamber will provide additional options for higher payloads. It is designed for use 10 times a year for 10 years, and can distribute a load as large as a refrigerator, while the Japanese air chamber is limited to a load no larger than a microwave oven.
“We’re five times bigger than the Japanese Air Chamber,” Brock Howe of Nanoracks told Space.com. “We could put a load no bigger than a microwave in a Japanese airlock. Now we can do things much bigger.”
Not a typical airlock
According to Howe, Bishop is not your average airlock. Typically, an air lock has an entrance door, a lobby and an exit door, he told Space.com. But Bishop differs in that it has no doors and relies entirely on the robotic arm of the space station, called Canadarm2.
“Every time he gets off the space station,” he said. “Then pew, pew, the satellites turn off.”
Once the payload is distributed, the hand will reconnect the module to the outside of the station and wait for its next use.
Bishop will help more companies and universities get to space. Because it can accommodate five times more than a Japanese air chamber, that means more customers can take their cargo into space in a timely manner and won’t have to rely on driving missions.
Bishop’s use will be boosted by the commercial market. “The way it works is that we financed it and built it with our own money,” Howe said. “Then as people use it, they pay us.”
Agencies like NASA will be one of many customers paying for the use of the airlock. For now, Nanoracks has contracts with NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese company GITAI to use the airlock. Which company will be used first and what will be in the airlock at that moment remains to be determined.
“It’s part of the commercial way of working. The launch doesn’t do anything for us, it just takes us there,” Howe said. “Now we need to start making money.”
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It took Nanorack five years to design and build the Bishop Air Chamber, and another year to persuade NASA to release it. According to Howe, Nanoracks signed a space act agreement with NASA, which meant no money would transfer hands.
“NASA provided a flight on the Dragon and a connection point, but the money did not shift hands,” he said.
But the agency (and others like it) will have to pay for the use of the airlock. So far, NASA has purchased six air chamber cycles and ESA five. Howe explained that they have a few years to use them and can arrange them as they wish.
Japanese robot company GITAI is the first company to buy an air chamber cycle at Bishop. GITAI won’t actually launch anything from Bishop, but will use it to test one of its robots to see how the machine works in zero gravity.
Ground controllers will operate the robot to study how well it can perform deft tasks in orbit, such as opening a zipper. The robot is designed to perform a variety of tasks that humans would do in space, and if successful, GITAI hopes to sell its robot to space companies that could one day use it on a free-floating space station.
“The tricky part is latency; when you move it around the earth, how does that match what the robot is doing in orbit,” Howe explained. “Future commercial space stations may not have people on board, so this will be a very useful technology.”
Nanoracks also designed the air chamber in such a way that payloads and experiments could be attached to its exterior, including payloads for observing the Earth. It can also be used as a tool shed for astronauts to use on spacewalks.
“Getting to this point was a fun ride, but I’m not going to say it was easy,” Howe said.
Follow Amy Thompson on Twitter @astrogingersnap. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.