Manufacturing Cubesat satellites in space and deploying without necessity of launching with rocket? It is maybe closer than You can imagine!
It is maybe not well known fact that from International Space Station crew members has ability to deploy small satellites. In fact, with utilization of Space Station Integrated Kinetic Launcher for Orbital Payload Systems (SSIKLOPS), mass of single satellite could be up to 110 kg. SSIKLOPS is placed in Kibo Japanese module and is one of three special deploying devices installed on ISS. It was not developed mainly for deploying satellites, but recently, due its possibility of deploying up to 110 kg objects, it was used for deploying two satellites: Bevo-2 and AggieSat-4. Other two devices are: The Japanese Experiment Module (JEM) Small Satellite Orbital Deployer (J-SSOD – first device for deploying Nanosatellites ever installed on ISS) and the NanoRacks Cube Sat Deployer (NRCSD), both installed in Kibo module. SSIKLOPS and J-SSOD are utilized for research purpose but NRCSD is commercially built and used for deploying Nanosatellites for customers worldwide. NRCSD was developed by commercial company NanoRacks and is autonomous Cubesat deployment system. It is built to meet all NASA flight safety requirements and is fully isolating Cubesat satellites from rest of ISS, crew and resupply vehicles. This is much better solution than SSIKLOPS which should be filled with Cubesats manually one after another by crew members. In commercial venture it would generate additional costs for deployment device operator. At the moment using Nanoracks device is limited with two things. First is capacity of airlock on Kibo module; it is used for loading platform with Nanosatellites into NRCSD (platform can be filled with maximally six Cubesats in size 1U, three 2U or two 3U in various combinations). Second is limitation are connected with way delivering Cubesats to ISS. They are usually, for cost reducing, piggyback payload during resupply missions. It has two disadvantages: number of satellites in one delivery is limited (it is not a very big problem with Cubesat satellites with low mass) of time for preparing delivery (resupply missions are scheduled and they are not performed every month – sometimes Customer is forced to wait 14 months for delivering his Cubesat to ISS). In spite of these issues, Nanoracks is planning developing whole venture by adding new airlock on ISS (of course with NASA approval) for solving problem with limitation of Kibo module airlock. After receiving NASA approval for developing additional commercial airlock, Nanoracks claims that it is possible that it will be ready on 2018. It could be delivered on SpaceX Dragon; rush is necessary because for the moment, ISS will operate for sure until 2024. Time is very precious for Nanoracks – longer period of operating with new airlock means more chance for reimbursement and increase income for Nanoracks. It is worth to mention that predicted cost of developing of new airlock will be around $15 million. Cost of lifting airlock to ISS and installing could be shared with NASA, which is for sure interested in extending possibilities of ISS. Still, long time for delivering ordered satellite will not be solved with additional airlock. In terms of possible future, it could be possible to manufacture some types of Cubesats on ISS. NASA tested 3D printer on ISS with positive results. Cubesats due their modular construction could be assembled with parts stocked on ISS board according to customer’s order. Of course, some parts would have to be manufactured on ISS (3D printing could be solution), but even for the moment, large number of Cubesats are assembled with off-the-shelf parts. Cubesats which assembly would require special parts would wait for delivery from Earth, but still lifting to ISS couple special parts like cameras or sensors, even one nanosatellite periodically, is less expensive then lifting whole Cubesat. It could be part of NASA science program for possible future manufacturing spare parts for space stations or introduce for assembling Mars spacecraft on orbit.
On picture above You can see Nanoracks device during deploying nanosatellites from International Space Station.