Minimize ISS: NanoRacks

ISS Utilization: NanoRack platforms on ISS host CubeLab modules

NanoRacks is a commercially operated research facility anboard the ISS, designed and developed by NanoRacks LLC of Houston, TX, and of Laguna Woods, CA, USA. Each platform provides room for up to 16 customer payloads to plug effortlessly into a standard USB connector, which provides both power and data connectivity. Its PnP (Plug-n-Play) system uses a simple, standardized interface that reduces payload integration cost and schedule for nano-scale research on the orbiting laboratory. 1)

NanoRacks LLC is working under a Space Act Agreement awarded by NASA from a competitive announcement of opportunity for the use of the National Laboratory on the International Space Station. NanoRacks LLC signed the Space Act Agreement in September 2009 and partnered with Kentucky Space and the Space Systems Laboratory (SSL) at the University of Kentucky (UK). The funding to build and certify the rack inserts has come exclusively from NanoRacks and their customers.

The Kentucky Space Consortium, or simply “Kentucky Space”, was founded in early 2006 (it is based in Lexington, KY). The universities involved in this partnership are: University of Kentucky, Murray State University, Morehead State University, KCTCS (Kentucky Community & Technical College System), University of Louisville, and Western Kentucky University.

The NanoRacks platform and the CubeLab standard provide a unique new opportunity for inexpensive repeatable access to the ISS for small payloads. The NanoRacks platform serves as the interface between CubeLab modules and the ISS while providing mechanical attachment, power, and data transfer to each module. The CubeLab standard defines mechanical and electrical requirements for CubeLab modules. CubeLabs can be flown to and from the ISS on a variety of manned and unmanned vehicles to support a wide variety of microgravity experiments. Once aboard the ISS CubeLabs are installed in the NanoRacks platforms. 2) 3) 4) 5) 6)

The NanoRacks platforms are permanently installed in an EXPRESS (EXpedite the PRocessing of Experiments to the Space Station) Rack Locker aboard the ISS.


Figure 1: EXPRESS Rack under test at NASA (left) and NanoRacks platform installation (right) in EXPRESS Rack and ISS module structure (image credit: Kentucky Space, NanoRacks LLC)

In July and August 2010, the ISS was outfitted with the first two NanoRack platforms, flown to orbit on STS-131 (19A) on April 5, 2010 and STS-132 (ULF4) on May 14, 2010, giving the ISS the capacity to support up to 32 1U CubeLab modules. The NanoRack-1 and NanoRack-2 were installed in EXPRESS Rack-4 which is accommodated in JEM (Japanese Experiment Module) of ISS.

With the NanoRacks/CubeLab approach, only the CubeLab modules need be carried to/from the ISS which can be achieved in standard CTBs (Cargo Transfer Bags) compatible with any of the existing and planned cargo vehicles that service the ISS (e.g., Progress, ATV, HTV, and DragonLab). - After the operational life of the individual CubeLab Modules, they can be disposed of or returned on Shuttle, Soyuz, or DragonLab.

The front panel of a NanoRacks platform, which is visible to the astronauts once installed in the locker, contains the ISS power connector, a circuit breaker, a status LED, and 16 USB type B female connectors. The only connection to the station is a 28 V power cable. To command CubeLabs or to download experiment results, an EXPRESS Rack Laptop Computer (ELC) is connected to the appropriate USB connector corresponding to each CubeLab.


Figure 2: Illustration of possible CubeLab module configurations and a NanoRack (image credit: Kentucky Space, NanoRacks LLC)

The NanoRacks system itself fits inside an EXPRESS Rack locker and holds up to 16 CubeLabs. Figure 3 shows the basic CubeLab form factor (10 cm cube), the configuration of CubeLabs on the NanoRack, and the EXPRESS Rack locker that encloses the Rack. Figure 1 (right side) shows an exploded view of the EXPRESS Rack and the configuration of the lockers. EXPRESS Racks are located in several modules throughout the ISS.


Figure 3: Illustration of (a) the CubeLab form factor, (b) a NanoRack with CubeLab module, (c) EXPRESS Rack locker (image credit: Kentucky Space)


CubeLab standard:

The CubeLab standard leverages the CubeSat form-factor (10 cm cube) which has revolutionized access to space for free-flying satellites throughout the last decade. A goal of the NanoRacks CubeLab facility on ISS is also to alleviate in particular the long waits of domestic U.S. CubeSat projects for a launch opportunity (Ref. 2).

Size of 1U CubeLab module

10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm

Mass, power

≤ 1 kg, 2 W (max)

Voltage, current

5 VDC (max), 400 mA (max)

Cooling requirements

2 W (max)


Intermittent USB (Universal Serial Bus) connectivity

Crew time

Negotiated as needed

Timeframe of experiment delivery

L-6 to L-3 months

Return mass

Negotiated as needed

Table 1: Overview of a CubeLab unit performance characteristics/requirements (Ref. 5)

The NanoRacks platform and CubeLab standard 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.

The CubeLab standard is designed to be flexible to accommodate a large number of mission concepts. The generic CubeLab is self-contained, autonomous, and disposable after the mission is over. It collects data from an experiment, e.g. sensor values, images from a camera, images from a microscope, etc., and saves the data as a file on a USB mass storage device. Files are then transferred from the CubeLab to a laptop by the crew and downlinked to MSFC (Marshall Space Flight Center) and archived at the Space Systems Lab for retrieval and analysis by the developer.

The CubeLab standard also allows more complicated mission concepts which include downmass, e.g. module return or sample return, and/or crew interaction. The crew interaction could be as simple as experiment activation to as complicated as real time interaction with a module. Also possible are unpowered experiments which necessitate sample return and/or crew interaction, e.g. radiation exposure, liquid mixing, crystal growth, etc. The standard is designed to be flexible enough that most mission concepts can be accommodated.


Figure 4: Photo of a 1U CubeLab module (image credit: Kentucky Space)

Larger CubeLab modules are possible with 2U (10 cm x 10 cm x 20 cm), 4U (10 cm x 10 cm x 40 cm), and up to 2U x 4U (10 cm x 20 cm x 40 cm) configurations, Figure 2 shows the various CubeLab form-factor layouts to accommodate larger payloads. CubeLab modules are physically attached to the NanoRacks platform using USB type B connectors.

CubeLab payloads have to undergo a NASA flight verification process to be accepted for operating within the EXPRESS Rack of the ISS. This verification process outlines an array of environmental, electronic, safety, and human factor tests which developers must be cognizant of during design and planning phases. A CubeLab ICD (Interface Control Document) has been developed to ensure that CubeLab modules integrated into the NanoRacks platform will conform to all of these higher-level requirements. 7)


CubeLab operations:

Real-time operations aboard the ISS, including installation, activation, data transfer, and deactivation of CubeLab modules, are coordinated by the NanoRacks Operations Center in the SSL (Space Systems Laboratory) at the University of Kentucky through the HOSC (Huntsville Operations Support Center) at MSFC. The NanoRacks/SSL Operations Center consists of a secure operation console tied into NASA voice loops, real-time astronaut and ground systems scheduling systems, procedure development and viewing tools, realtime telemetry feeds, and live high-definition video feeds from the ISS.

Console support is required during all real-time operations on board the ISS; thus, the Operations Center voice loops are manned at all times during NanoRacks engineering and CubeLab science operations and on-call 24/7. Console support ensures the integrity of CubeLab science goals and consists of monitoring telemetry feeds to ensure nominal current draw and temperatures, reviewing procedures and timelines, and monitoring NASA science and engineering voice loops to respond to astronaut and controller questions and coordinate crew time and resources.

The Operations Center suite of resources to support CubeLab operations include: The NASA Internet Voice Distribution System (IVoDS) providing Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP); International Procedure Viewer (iPV) and On-Board Short Term Plan Viewer (OSTPV) for astronaut schedules and procedures, respectively; Enhanced HOSC System (EHS) and Enhanced HOSC System PC (EPC) for telemetry views; and the Telescience Resource Kit (TReK), for remote commanding. By maintaining all NASA protocols for internet and machine security, password protection, and physical facilities security, the Operations Center serves as an essential communication link between NASA and CubeLab developers.


Figure 5: NanoRacks/CubeLab operations console in the SSL of the University of Kentucky (image credit: Kentucky Space)

NanoRacks LLC, working with its partner Kentucky Space, has a turnkey operational system that can handle all aspects of customer requirements, from payload development, to NASA integration to mission operations, all in a customer friendly environment.

The plug-and-play nature of the NanoRacks-CubeLab modules allows for interested parties, such as universities or commercial companies, to fly small and relatively inexpensive payloads aboard the station. This enables microgravity research for those who may not otherwise have had the opportunity.


Some early CubeLab experiments:

• On Sept. 21, 2009, NanoRacks LLC announced plans to send “CubeLab standard” experiments to the ISS for installation in NanoRacks. 8) 9)

• In 2010, four CubeLab modules were flown to the ISS. Two modules, CubeLab1 and CubeLab-2, were flown with each NanoRacks platform. Each of the four modules was designed to test the effects of ionizing radiation on commercial flash memory devices inside the EXPRESS Rack locker. The motivation of this testing was that COTS (Commercial Off-the-Shelf) electronic components can suffer from SEEs (Single Event Effects) in the presence of radiation in LEO (Low Earth Orbit) and baseline testing of these components should provide valuable guidance for future CubeLab module development (Ref. 2).

- CubeLab-1, developed by Kentucky Space, interfaced with the NanoRacks platform. Following Kentucky Space’s and NASA’s testing requirements, CubeLab-1 interfaced with the NanoRacks platform, drew power, and was configured to act as a simple flash drive. This was to ensure the basic function of the NanoRack, providing electrical and data connectivity as well as structural support, worked in microgravity as expected. It also tested the radiation susceptibility of SD cards, which are also used in Kentucky Space’s orbital CubeSat, KySat-1. 10)

- The primary objective of CubeLab-2 was to test the radiation susceptibility of the SD (Secure Digital ) cards (a non-volatile memory card format) that are used in KySat-1. Various shielding methods were used in an effort to find effective ways to reduce radiation susceptibility of flash memory. 11)

The first module to return from orbit was CubeLab-2 on May 26, 2010 aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis after spending six weeks in orbit. Once all of the first four CubeLab modules are returned (on STS-133, 134, and 135 in late 2011) the flash memory devices will be compared to ground control CubeLabs and each other to compare the affects of SEEs during for various durations on-orbit.

• In 2011, a wide variety of CubeLab modules are being developed by High-school teams, Universities, and industrial partners. The experiments include microgravity fluid mixing experiments, plant growth, materials properties investigations, pharmaceutical experiments and educational outreach activities. Additionally a digital microscope facility is manifested for flight to the ISS for installation in the NanoRacks Platform as an additional analysis tool for future CubeLab developers.

• On Jan. 22, 2011, the HTV-2 (H-II Transfer Vehicle 2) of JAXA was launched from TNSC (Tanegashima Space Center), Japan. On Jan. 27, HTV-2 arrived at the ISS. Three NanoRacks payloads were part of the HTV-2 cargo - which were those from Valley Christian High-school of San Jose, CA, Ohio State University (OSU), and a NanoRacks research facility hardware. 12)

- The experiment of Valley Christian School is a 2U CubeLab module containing its own growing environment and monitoring system designed by students at Valley Christian. The objective is to record and relay data on plant growth in an effort to answer questions related to the effect of micro-gravity on the cultivation of plants in long duration space flight. The experiment involved testing whether plant-based food can be grown to sustain astronauts during prolonged space missions. 13) 14)

- The OSU experiment is focused on isolating the effect of gravity on the growth of ceria nanoparticles. Ceria (CeO2) is used as a support or catalyst in many technologically important reactions, such as high-temperature coatings for jet engines, solid oxide fuel cells for next-generation automobiles, and emissions abatement. The experiment will contribute information on whether reduced gravity leads to a higher level of performance for the catalyst. 15)

- The NanoRacks research facility hardware is the CubeLab-5 module, a USB microscope for use by crew members to analyze and digitally transfer images of the ISS on-orbit environment samples. As such, the CubeLab-5 module remains stowed as a permanent NanoRacks module. The objective of the CubeLab-5 module is to support future investigations onboard the ISS. 16)

• On March 8, 2011, the term “CubeLab” became a registered trademark, CubeLab™, of Kentucky Space, LLC. 17)

1) “Commercial Facility Activated on U.S. National Laboratory Onboard International Space Station,” NASA, July 23, 2010, URL:

2) James E. Lumpp, Jr., Daniel M. Erb, Twyman S. Clements, Jason T. Rexroat, Michael D. Johnson, “The CubeLab Standard for Improved Access to the International Space Station,” 011 IEEE Aerospace Conference, Big Sky, MT, USA, March 5-12, 2011


4) “NanoRack & CubeLabs,” SSL (Space Systems Laboratory), University of Kentucky, URL:

5) “NanoRacks Experiment Overview,” April 20, 2010, URL:

6) Jason Crusan, “Innovation and Technology,” NASA Space Operations Mission Directorate, April 22, 2010, URL:

7) “Interface Control Document Between CubeLab Modules and the NanoRacks Platform,” Kentucky Space, Document: 8400-NRP-ICD-1, January 11, 2011, Rev. 1, URL:

8) “NanoRacks announces Space Act Agreement with NASA for use of Space Station for low-cost industrial and educational research,” URL:

9) Debra Werner, “Startup Signs NASA Agreement to Fly Mini Labs on Station,” Space News, Sept. 28, 2009, URL:

10) “CubeLab Operations,” SSL, 2011, URL:

11) “University of Kentucky Experiments with Radiation in Space,” NASA, Feb. 16, 2011, URL:

12) NanoRacks, Platform Update, Jan. 27, 2011, URL:

13) “Valley Christian ISS Project,” Oct. 26, 2010, URL:

14) “Students Blaze a Trail Using NanoRacks-CubeLabs for Space Station Research,” NASA, Dec. 22, 2010, URL:

15) “OSU CubeLab Team to Design Microgravity Experiment,” URL:

16) “NanoRacks-CubeLabs_Module-5 (NanoRacks-CubeLabs_Module-5),” NASA, March 4, 2011, URL:


The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates.