NASA has accepted a proposal from Texas-based aerospace company Nanoracks to build the first commercial airlock on the International Space Station (ISS), with a planned installation date of 2019.
Nanoracks is already responsible for deploying small satellites for private companies on the ISS. It does this from the Japanese Kibo module, using the NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer, a protruding arm away from the station from which cubesats – small satellites the size of a loaf of bread – can be fired into orbit, with experiments and instruments on board.
But a full commercial airlock will give private companies a whole new way to access space. According to The Verge, it would allow “satellites the size of a refrigerator” to be deployed, with five times the volume of the airlock in the Kibo module.
The new airlock would be attached to a port on the Tranquility module on the station. This is also the location of another commercial endeavor, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), an inflatable room that was installed last year.
“We want to utilize the space station to expose the commercial sector to new and novel uses of space, ultimately creating a new economy in low-Earth orbit for scientific research, technology development and human and cargo transportation,” said Sam Scimemi, director of the ISS Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in a statement. “We hope this new airlock will allow a diverse community to experiment and develop opportunities in space for the commercial sector.”
This is how small satellites are deployed from the ISS at the moment, from the Kibo module. NASA/JAXA
The airlock is going to be developed by Boeing, with management of the airlock once it's attached to be run by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). It will be delivered to the station by one of the private companies that performs resupply missions, likely SpaceX or Orbital ATK.
This also comes on the back of news that NASA may be considering selling off parts of the ISS beyond its operational lifetime in 2024 or 2028. One company, Axiom Space, is hoping it can use some of the American modules to build a new private space station.
Whatever happens, private companies are playing a greater and greater role in space exploration, and that’s certainly a good thing. NASA’s ultimate plan is to leave Earth orbit to private companies, while they set their eyes on other destinations like the Moon or Mars.