The CubeLab standard is a small form-factor payload standard for the ISS providing a mechanical mount, power, and data transfer capabilities for a variety of payloads. The system is designed in such a way that after the NanoRack platforms are in place in the ISS, only small payload modules need be carried to the station in standard Cargo Transfer Bags (CTB) aboard any of the existing and planned cargo vessels that service the station (e.g., Progress, ATV, HTV). After the operating life-span of the individual CubeLabs they can be disposed of in Progress vehicles or can even be returned on Soyuz and DragonLab. Once the station is outfitted with the first two NanoRacks on 19A (STS-131) and ULF4 (STS-132), the ISS will have the capacity to operate 32 CubeLab modules.
The CubeLab form-factor leverages the CubeSat form-factor which has revolutionized access to space for free-flying satellites. The standard is popular as an educational platform atuniversities around the world and has proven to be a viable platform for space research with several CubeSats launched by NASA and a variety of aerospace companies. However, the CubeSat community, particularly in the US, has been constrained by the lack of launch opportunities. While there are several initiatives underway, the typical University CubeSat program finds it difficult to find domestic launch opportunities and difficult to fly with international launch providers due to ITAR and cost constraints. The NanoRacks and CubeLab platform addresses these issues by providing 1) regular, fast turn-around access, 2) a reasonable cost and 3) by operating under a Space Act Agreement with NASA, provides access to an array of commercial and foreign launch vehicles with no ITAR concerns. This familiar form-factor, combined with a reasonable price point and unprecedented regular access to the Station, make this a platform that could make a tremendous impact on aerospace education. Not only can a team develop a payload, operate it on the ISS and gather and analyze the data, but they could do so several times in the course of a typical two year graduate program.
The NanoRack system itself fits inside an EXPRESS Rack locker and holds up to 16 CubeLabs. Figure 1 shows the basic CubeLab form factor (10cm cube), the configuration of CubeLabs on the NanoRack, and the EXPRESS Rack Locker that encloses the rack. Figure 2 shows an exploded view of the EXPRESS Rack and the configuration of the lockers. EXPRESS Racks are located in several modules throughout the ISS. NanoRack-1 and NanoRack-2 will be installed in the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM) in EXPRESS Rack 4.
The front panel of the NanoRack (visible to the astronauts) contains a power connector, a circuit breaker, a power LED, and an array of 16 USB type B connections. These connections provide the astronauts with access to each CubeLab with the CubeLabs appearing as a USB mass storage device to the EXPRESS Rack Laptop Computer (ELC). This novel design greatly enhances the utility of the CubeLab modules in that it allows individual CubeLabs to be connected directly to a laptop for testing and data transfer. During normal operations, CubeLab modules are installed in the NanoRacks platform inside an EXPRESS Rack locker providing continuous power to carry out experiments even when the ELC is not connected to the individual CubeLab. Once the experiment data is transferred to a disk partition on the ELC, ground controllers transfer the data down to Earth through the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) network to the Huntsville Operations Support Center (HOSC) at MSFC. From there the data is disseminated to CubeLab researchers via the Internet.
Installation and operation on the ISS:
Rack 1 was installed on the International Space Station on July 12, 2009 by astronaut Shannon Walker, operations of the first CubeLab module began shortly after.
Rack 2 was installed on the International Space Station on August 23, 2009 also by Shannon Walker. Both the installation of Rack 1 and Rack 2 occurred during Expedition 24 of the ISS.