The independent organization that NASA selected to run National Laboratory work on the International Space Station may be off to a slow start, but outside “pathfinders” on the ISS are demonstrating ways to use its unique environment that already fall outside traditional government methods.

The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (Casis) is taking over management of experiment capabilities provided by Aurora Flight Sciences and NanoRacks, which both found their way onto the station with equal parts chutzpah and hard work. Aurora, working closely with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology here, is planning upgrades for the popular Synchronized Position Hold, Engage & Reorient Experimental Satellites (Spheres)—three control-software testbeds that fly inside the station's laboratory modules to give programmers a quick look at how well their algorithms work in microgravity.

NanoRacks—a commercial startup that knocked on NASA's door and won permission to install a simple set of USB data ports on the ISS for cubesat-size student experiments—has moved on to other facilities, including a small centrifuge that will give scientists a 1g control environment for zero-g experiments.

Both fly in the face of the elaborate, and expensive, process that has generated the government-furnished scientific equipment on the station. Both offer applications that appear to mesh nicely with the National Lab objective of making station facilities available to all. And both give researchers a realistic way to move the scientific method into space.

“The first thing that the space station should be about is creating a laboratory environment in space, and not just going and demonstrating things that will always work,” says Alvar Saenz-Orero, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on ISS utilization while spearheading development of Spheres. “That's a key change in the idea of how to use space. You no longer have to invest hundreds of millions of dollars so everything works the first time, perfectly. You can actually take risks.”

Spheres had its origins in an MIT “capstone” class for undergraduate seniors designed to give them hands-on experience in developing space and aeronautics projects. A set of three miniature “satellites” the size of bowling balls, Spheres uses compressed-gas thrusters to maneuver autonomously with algorithms written for formation flying, docking and other profiles (AW&ST Aug. 25, 2003, p. 17).

In the Destiny lab, crewmembers use their laptops to upload the test software into the three satellites, and then videotape the results. The Spheres can orbit each other like balls without a juggler, hold formation relative to each other and “dock” using Velcro patches, even when the docking “target” is tumbling.

“I remember that we had a couple of requirements that we gave the students back in '99,” says Javier de Luis, vice president of research programs at Aurora Flight Sciences, which bought the Spheres application from the original MIT-spinoff company. “One of them was that the software couldn't be safety-critical, and the other one was that Spheres couldn't cheat, in the sense that the systems that are inside Spheres, which is designed to fly indoors, should at least have analogs to comparable systems that would be used outside.”

Going outside may be the next step for Spheres. David Miller, who taught the Spheres capstone class with de Luis, gave the students a dose of real life when he decided, after critical design review, that the free-fliers needed an expansion port for future upgrades. Astronaut Don Pettit has since upgraded those ports in orbit for better data and mechanical connections, and work is underway here to design hardware to expand the systems' ability to operate outside the space station.

Early plans call for adding a fourth unit to the set in orbit, upgrading the other three, and eventually sending two of the four into space through the airlock in Japan's Kibo laboratory module. Those would add orbital dynamics and the “big sky” view in space to the microgravity testing environment that Spheres can provide but that cannot be duplicated on the ground.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) was the original Spheres sponsor on ISS. In the decade 2000-10, Saenz-Orero and his colleagues developed Spheres and operated the project post-launch on the station for about $5 million. But that was accomplished by piecing together support from Darpa, NASA, MIT and Aurora, through 18 different contracts.

For its part of that relatively inexpensive effort, NASA now has a facility that can provide low-cost, risk-tolerant tests of software before expensive spacecraft are built to run it. That philosophy is also available on NanoRacks, a startup created in 2009 to develop and market simple plug-and-play experiment accommodation on the ISS (AW&ST Oct. 3, 2011, p. 54).

Basically a rack that provides power and data for cubesat-size experiment modules through simple USB ports, two of the “Nanolabs” are installed in an Express rack in Japan's Kibo laboratory module. For $35,000-40,000, a customer can turn an experiment over to the company for delivery to the station and operation once it is there. The low price makes the accommodation attractive as a teaching tool, and NanoRacks counts high schools among its 60-plus manifested customers. Recently the company entered an agreement with the Conrad Foundation that collects credit-card reward points from American Express users to raise funds for station experiments starting as low as $15,500 each.

Since launching its first two Nanolabs, NanoRacks has added microscopes, a microplate reader spectrophotometer and a simple fluid-mixing system called MixStiks that allows chemical and biological experiments to be activated with a flexing motion. The company has a $1.5 million agreement with Casis to put a NanoRack on the Kibo exposed facility, and will launch a small centrifuge it developed with Astrium on a Russian Progress mission this summer as part of its third Nanolab platform on the ISS.