Later this year, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will fly from Central Florida, destined to attach a large metal cup outside the International Space Station. The hardware is a first-of-its-kind commercial airlock, designed to eject payloads and other materials into the vacuum of space from inside a pressurized space station.
Airlock is a product of aerospace company Nanorax, which helps private customers access the space. So far, the company has built small space-bound hardware, such as standardized research boxes that customers can use to experiment in the space station’s microgravity environment. It has also developed its own satellite deployers that are used to shoot small spacecraft into orbit, either from the ISS or from small free-flying spacecraft.
But this commercial airlock – called Bishop – is perhaps the most ambitious piece of hardware that Nanorax has yet built. Shaped like a bell jar, the airlock will attach to an available port outside the ISS, creating a small round bump on the exterior of the orbiting laboratory. A series of clamps and mechanisms on the sides of the port will latch onto the airlock, ensuring that the airtight is sealed. Astronauts can then open the port hatch and store items in the airlock.
Mike Lewis, chief innovation officer at Nanorax, provides a virtual tour of the bishop, saying, “Once it’s there, it’s just extra real estate, unless we want to use it.” The ledge. “We can use it in many ways, the first of which is to bring things outside.”
When payloads are placed inside the bishop, the astronauts will close the port hatch and suck the air from the airlock through a pump. Then, a robotic branch outside the space station can catch the bishop from outside and remove him from the port, exposing objects inside the space. It’s a bit like someone taking out a round cap from their head. Once any planned activities are performed, the hand can place the airlock again at the port, where the bishop lays back and the other forms an airtight seal. “It’s very much like on a submarine when you’re going in water, except for the difference you’re going in the vacuum of space,” Lewis says.
Currently, the space station has three airlocks – two that allow people to leave the station and one airlock is in the Japanese experiment module used to release payloads into space. Until now, the Japanese airlock has been the only way, when Nanorax has deployed its customers’ satellites into space. Along with Bishop, the company has another option to take out the door, one that according to the company is five times the current volume of Japanese airlock. And this means that even more customers can get a place in a timely fashion, only by clearing the available backlog for deployment of an airlock.
A major goal of the airlock is to double it as a satellite. Customers can attach deployment boxes to the inside of the diocese, tuck inside their satellites. Then, when the opening of the airlock is exposed to space, the deployers will eject their satellites, placing them around the Earth. Things not to shoot outside of Bishop is Either being long term satellites. NASA has a deal with the ISS to pack garbage items inside containers, which will shoot into space from the airlock. The containers quickly fall out of orbit and then burn into the Earth’s atmosphere. “The good side effect is that it is a very beautiful shooting star,” says Lewis.
Bishops can only be used to illuminate experiments in the vacuum of space. One customer, a Japanese startup called GITAI, will test its new robotic arm inside Bishop. In this way, the company can see how its technology operates in a vacuum of space or in a pressurized environment. Nanorax increases the mounting research payload on airlock to observe parts of the Earth from space. The company included adapters outside the diocese so that payloads and experiments could be connected to the exterior of the airlock. Bishop can also be used to house equipment that astronauts may need when doing spacewalks outside the ISS.
The company is currently finishing the airlock and conducting a final test for the purpose of shipping hardware to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in two weeks. Bishop is scheduled to launch in the space station on SpaceX’s next cargo mission, which is currently slated in mid-November. When the dragon reaches the ISS, the station’s robotic arm will take Bishop out of the trunk and attach it to its final parking lot.
The airlock gets its name from the bishop in chess, a piece that can move any direction on the board. The name is meant to reflect Bishop’s versatility and various maneuvers, which are associated with the station’s robotic arm. This is also an indication of Nanorax’s strategy in the future. The company also has dreams of building its own free-floating space station made from recycled fuel tanks of rockets. Such stations may also have similar airlocks, and bishops can also be transferred from the ISS to one of those facilities one day.
For now, Nanorax is simply focused on helping its customers get their payloads into space as soon as possible, which is why they created Bishop in the first place. “The best reason to actually make it commercially and not through a government program was that we wanted it, and we wanted it now,” Lewis says. “We saw its need for our customer base as well as future plans.”