Later this year, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will depart from central Florida with a large metal cup destined to be attached to the outside of the International Space Station. The hardware is a first of its kind commercial locks designed to get payloads and other materials from inside the printed space station into the space vacuum.
The airlock is a product from the airline Nanoracks, which helps private customers access the space. Until now, the company has created less space-bound hardware, such as standardized research boxes, that customers can use to perform experiments in the space station̵
But this commercial airlock – called the Bishop – is perhaps the most ambitious piece of hardware that Nanoracks has built yet. Shaped like a bell jar, the metal air attaches to an accessible port on the outside of the ISS, creating a small rounded bump on the outside of the orbiting laboratory. A number of clamps and mechanisms on the edges of the door are locked to the airlock, which ensures that there is an airtight seal. Astronauts can then store objects in the airlock by opening the harbor hatch.
“Once it’s there, it’s just extra real estate until we want to use it,” says Mike Lewis, Nanoracks’ head of innovation, who provided a virtual tour of Bishop. The edge. “We can use it in a number of ways, the first of which is to bring things out.”
Once the payload is mounted inside Bishop, astronauts close the harbor hatch and suck air out of the airlock through a pump. Then a robot arm on the outside of the space station can grab Bishop from the outside and remove it from the harbor, exposing the objects inside the space vacuum. It looks like someone removing a rounded hood from their head. Once planned activities are completed, the arm can place the airlock back on the harbor again, where the bishop locks in again, creating another airtight seal. “It’s a lot like a submarine when you go out in the water, except the difference is that you go out into space,” Lewis says.
Currently, there are three airlocks on the space station – two that allow people to leave the station, and an airlock in the Japanese experiment module that is used to release payloads in space. Until now, the Japanese airlock has been the only way Nanoracks has distributed its customers’ satellites in space. With Bishop, the company has another opportunity to get things out the door, one that is more than five times the current volume of the Japanese airlock, according to the company. And that means even more customers can get out into space on time and clear backlogs created by having only one airlock available for implementation.
A major goal of the airlock is to make it work as a satellite installer. Customers can attach implementation boxes on the inside of the Bishop with their satellites tucked inside. Then, when the opening of the airlock is exposed to space, the deployers launch their satellites and put them in orbit around the Earth. The things that shoot out of the bishop do not have nor to be long-term satellites. NASA has an agreement to pack waste items from the ISS inside containers that shoot out of the airlock in space. The containers are designed to quickly fall out of orbit and then burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. “The nice side effect is that it makes a big beautiful shooting star,” Lewis says.
Bishop can also be used to simply expose experiments to the vacuum of space. A customer, a Japanese startup named GITAI, will test its new robot arm inside Bishop. That way, the company can see how its technology holds up in either vacuum in space or in an environment under pressure. Nanoracks also envisions mounting research payloads on the airlock to observe parts of the earth from space. The company included adapters on the outside of the Bishop so that payloads and experiments can be attached to the outside of the airlock. Bishop could even be used to house tools that astronauts may need when making spacewalks outside the ISS.
The company is currently closing the airlock and conducting the final test with the aim of sending the hardware to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the next two weeks. Bishop is then scheduled for launch on SpaceX’s next cargo mission to the space station, which is currently scheduled for mid-November. When the kite reaches the ISS, the station’s robotic arm takes the bishop out of the trunk and attaches it to its final parking space.
The airlock gets its name from the bishop in chess, a piece that can move any direction on the board. The name is intended to reflect the bishop’s versatility and the various maneuvers it can make when attached to the station’s robot arm. It’s also a nod to Nanoracks’ strategy in the future. The company has even bolder dreams of creating its own free-floating space stations made from recycled rocket fuel tanks. Such stations could also have similar airlocks, and Bishop could even be moved from the ISS to one of these facilities one day.
For now, Nanoracks is simply focused on helping its customers get their payload into space as quickly as possible, which is why they set up Bishop in the first place. “Really the best reason to do this commercially and not through a government program was that we wanted it and we wanted it now,” Lewis says. “We saw a need for this both in our customer base and in our future plans.”