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NanoRacks CEO Sees Soaring Opportunity Following Deployer Malfunction

By Juliet Van Wagenen | March 26, 2015
      SmallSat ISS deployment from NanoRacks

      A SmallSat Deployment from the ISS. Photo: NanoRacks

      [Via Satellite 03-26-2015] Despite a few recent setbacks, NanoRacks, a company that provides access to the International Space Station (ISS) for customers to launch their payloads into space, sees more opportunity than ever in the growing small satellite market; but alongside these prospects comes the challenges of exploring new territory. In the past year, NanoRacks has partnered with the likes of Spaceflight to deploy 28 Planet Labs CubeSats, and has also struck an agreement with Space Systems/Loral (SSL) to pursue a Hosted Payloads Solutions (HoPS) contract for the government.

      Seeing the opportunities for CubeSat deployment, NanoRacks reached out to NASA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in 2009 and self-funded its own ISS deployer, which has proven to be a successful endeavor. However, with the back-to-back challenge of a CubeSat deployer malfunction in September 2014 and the October 2014 Antares launch failure, the new company has come up against its fair share of challenges as it tries to maneuver its way through the new SmallSat landscape. NanoRacks has since gotten its deployer back up and running — an endeavor that President and CEO Jeffrey Manber believes has strengthened the company both technically and ethically in the long run.

      “Early on, after we had the CubeSat anomaly, I went to NASA headquarters and told them that my goal in this whole process was to have NanoRacks emerge with a reputation stronger than before, and I think we’ve accomplished that,” Manber told Via Satellite, noting that the company tried to take the deployer malfunction in stride. “Because in space, things happen to everybody; it’s difficult, space is hard.”

      When the malfunction occurred in fall of last year, Manber said he was impressed with the support both NASA and the company’s commercial customers showed. NanoRacks took the stance of transparency when diagnosing the issue, bringing in The Aerospace Corporation to overlook and assist in the repairs.

      “We were able to find out that there were some mistakes in our electrical systems; some mistakes in our mechanical processes,” said Manber. “We brought in The Aerospace Corporation to look over our shoulder. We wanted to show NASA we weren’t afraid and, together with The Aerospace Corporation, we rapidly came up with the fault-free analysis. We figured it out and we implemented it, and I’m really proud that we did on-orbit repairs,”.

      NanoRacks, with the help of astronauts aboard the ISS, installed a new, simplified, commanding system for the deployers, and secondary latches to safeguard the deployers in case of any operational issues, all while in orbit.

      “One day NanoRacks wishes to have its own platforms, and, you know what, they may be robotic, not man-tended, and you can’t always bring things back down, so we said let’s try and fix this from the ground and keep those deployers up there,” Manber explained. The company was able to complete in-orbit repairs to the deployer, claiming a 100 percent successful deploy rate since the problem was remedied in late February and has since resumed deployment of 12 Planet Labs Doves for the Orb-2 CubeSat mission. NanoRacks is now primed for further deployments as they arise, and they certainly will.

      The success of SmallSats is no where near slowing down according to Euroconsult’s latest SmallSat report “Prospects for the Small Satellite Market,” which predicts a two-thirds pick up in the number of SmallSats to be launched in next five years when compared to the last decade. The increase presents new opportunities for budding companies, but also presents new challenges, as evidenced by the deployer malfunction, which arose as a symptom of NanoRacks taking advantage of a system that previously had little commercial appeal.

      “The system is a Japanese space agency system and there was no on-the-ground flight hardware. There was nothing we could test, and we learned how important that is. We were really, from the beginning, basing everything on the documents; we couldn’t play with the printed hardware, and that’s really important,” said Manber. “JAXA never thought there would be a strong outside commercial demand for the system, which we understand, so they chose not to build a very expensive flight unit on the ground and so very often you expect that in a complex space system. Here, they probably thought there would be no reason.”

      The Antares launch failure also caught NanoRacks off balance, alongside many others, and created a certain amount of pent-up demand that they are still attempting to disseminate.

      “The failure of Antares has caused a ripple effect and for the first time we are unable to meet all of our customer demands,” said Manber, who notes that the company will most likely be playing catch up until 2016. But the backlog also presents a place where the current space powers could ramp up to keep in line with growing smaller, entrepreneurial space markets.

      “I would urge the [Office of Management and Budget] OMB and NASA to think about a couple more cargo ships because folks like NanoRacks are growing and picking up demand, and if one failure of a cargo ship is causing me to not meet all of my customer’s request, I think we need a couple of extra cargo ships,” said Manber.

      That demand from NanoRacks alone is certainly growing, as the company has deployed 75 CubeSats to this date and is looking to double that number in the next few months — and NanoRacks’ new microsatellite deployer, known as Kaber, may boost these aspirations. The company is also entering the final stages of launching its own external platform that was designed and manufactured in conjunction with Airbus Defence and Space. As NanoRacks looks beyond the future of the ISS, it is also considering alternative commercial platforms and as of yet undecided windows of opportunity inside the rocketing CubeSat business.

      “We’re also looking to announce our first payload off of the space station and to talk more and more about our serious plans to operate our own commercial platforms,” said Manber. “This is a very exciting time, the policy in place is good we have a robust customer base and we’re feeling good about where we are and where the industry is.”