First patents filed from commercial research on Space Station, crew readies for busy period

by Chris Gebhardt

For the first time, two companies that have conducted manufacturing research aboard the International Space Station have filed patents with the US government for the manufacturing of specific materials and supplies in space.  Procter & Gamble is responsible for three of the patents, with Made In Space responsible for the fourth.

Meanwhile, the crew aboard the International Space Station is prepping for a busy period in September with the arrival of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s HTV-7 resupply craft which will deliver new experiment Racks as well as batteries for the International Space Station.

ISS utilization – two companies file patents on in-space manufactured products:

To date, over 2,600 experiments have been performed aboard the International Space Station over its life, with over 3,000 investigators of those experiments scattered around the world.

The number of experiments performed on the Station has increased greatly in recent years, with NASA noting that several of the last crew expeditions have completed 300 or more experiments per increment.

Dr. Peggy Whitson performs a biology experiment aboard the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Moreover, as Mr. Sam Scimemi noted to the NASA Advisory Council this week, the ISS National Lab, through CASIS (Center for the Advancement of Science In Space), has funded more than $40 million (USD) in experiments performed in Low Earth Orbit.  About 50% of that figure goes toward implementation partners – those who build the hardware the experiments are performed in.

Another $143 million (USD) worth of experiments has come from non-NASA, non-CASIS funding channels, including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, etc.

Those financial figures are for the experiments themselves and do not include the cost of launching the experiments up to the Space Station.

A main point Mr. Scimemi brought to the NASA Advisory Council’s attention was the rate at which the International Space Station is able to reduce experimentation time compared to ground-based research.

Mr. Scimemi stated that research on the ground takes time, and that companies might spend 10 to 15 years going from hypothesis to patent in order to sell or protect an invention and use it for real-world application.

But the International Space Station can greatly shorten that experimentation time, with Mr. Scimemi highlighting that two companies, Procter & Gamble and Made In Space, have been able to go from hypothesis to patent application in just a few short years.

Moreover, the four patents from Procter & Gamble and Made In Space relate specifically to products manufactured in Earth orbit and represent the first known patents to have been requested based on ISS research.

In addition to the three patent applications from Procter & Gamble, Made In Space has one pending with the US patent office for ZBLAN optical fiber.

“There’s been a patent application for ZBLAN production of fibers on the Space Station, and Made In Space has completed its first demo of ZBLAN production in space,” noted Mr. Scimemi.

“This is one of the possible commercial applications of doing manufacturing in space with these optical fibers.”

While these are just the first known patents filed based on manufacturing techniques and research in space, it is possible that others have already been filed and granted by the US patent office.

The disconnect stems from CASIS having to rely on its partners to self-report such patent applications, with Procter & Gamble and Made In Space being the first to do so.

Therefore, there could be other patents for space-based manufacturing pending or approved that are not known because the companies have not self-reported those to CASIS.

Here comes HTV-7:

In addition to the regular research schedule for September, the ISS crew is prepping for the arrival of yet another cargo resupply craft – this time the HTV-7 from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

Under the current plan, HTV-7 will launch from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan on 11 September 2018 at 07:32 JST – which is 2232 UTC and 18:32 EDT on 10 September.

A successful launch that day will be followed on 14 September with berthing to the International Space Station.

Of the numerous experiments and equipment being brought to the Station on HTV-7, six new Lithium-ion batteries for the Station’s power system and several new internal experiment racks are among the highest priority items.

In particular, the batteries will result in two spacewalks, or EVAs (Extra Vehicular Activities), on 20 and 26 September.

During these two spacewalks, old batteries on the Station will be removed and replaced (R&Red) with the new Lithium-ion batteries delivered by the Japan resupply craft.

The old batteries will subsequently be installed into the external cargo compartment of HTV- 7 and will be destroyed during atmospheric reentry.

The original nickel-hydrogen batteries of the ISS that are being replaced by new Lithium-ION batteries. (Credit: NASA)

However, the new experiment racks going up on HTV-7 are also of prime importance for the ISS.

“We’re bringing up several rack-based systems,” noted Mr. Scimemi.  “Our glovebox that we have on-board Station is basically – for every increment – 100% booked.  So we needed another life sciences glovebox.”

The need for several new experiment racks on Station relates directly to HTV-7 because it is the only craft, crewed or uncrewed, capable of transporting full-sized science racks up to the International Space Station.

During the Station’s development, the routine exchange of experiment racks was built into the design of the orbiting lab – a process facilitated solely by the US Space Shuttle fleet at first.

The HTV augmented that ability in 2009 and January 2011.  But with the Space Shuttle’s retirement in July 2011, HTV became the only vehicle large enough to transport full sized racks up to the Station.

In addition to batteries and new experiment racks, HTV-7 will also bring up a host of new experiments and supplies for the crew, including consumables such as food and water.

All consumables aboard the International Space Station are presently in excellent shape due to the routine cadence and success of resupply missions.

The current limiting consumable is food, though that consumable has enough stockpiled to last for well over the 6-month minimum of stocked supplies the Station Program likes to maintain.

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