On Monday, Space Shuttle Discovery will carry equipment and experiments to the International Space Station (ISS). However, one payload is particularly exciting.

As part of a joint venture between Kentucky Space (a non-profit space research collaboration based in Kentucky) and the Houston-based company NanoRacks, a new type of standardized micro-laboratory will be launched and installed on the space station during the 13-day STS-131 mission.

Standardized Labs, Faster Science

Small laboratories have been installed aboard the space station before (such as the space butterfly outreach experiment, organized by Baylor College of Medicine in Houston), but this is the first attempt at designing and building a standardized, cheap and lightweight technology to be used by multiple organizations for a variety of microgravity science experiments.

“When the rack is installed, you’d plug in the lab via USB,” Kris Kimel, President of Kentucky Space, told me during a phone call on Friday.

USB (or Universal Serial Bus) devices are standard pieces of kit in the computing world, so by giving “CubeLabs” this capability, “they basically become ‘plug and play’ laboratories,” Kimel said, emphasizing the convenience of the NanoRack/CubeLab concept.

Up to 16 individual CubeLabs can be installed on each NanoRack, each capable of carrying out independent experiments.

One of the CubeLabs (Kentucky Space).

The most appealing thing about these mini laboratories is that they are very lightweight, so they can be easily unplugged, stowed and transported to and from the station by the next available flight. Currently, space station experiments are often too unwieldy, forcing research groups to wait for long periods of time before they can retrieve their experiments from space, no matter how interesting or important their science results may be.

Also, due to their design and function, NanoRacks allow a higher pace of microgravity experimentation, stimulating more “high risk” experiments, potentially boosting low-cost space research.

A Space Science ‘Mash-Up’

The NanoRack concept is proving to be so popular with NASA that Kimel expects to have a second NanoRack installed on the ISS in May after being launched as part of the STS-132 mission, shuttle Atlantis’ final scheduled flight before retirement. By this summer, there will be 32 kg (70 lb) of research mass contained inside the two installed NanoRacks, and more are expected.

“Almost all of our space tech is built by students. NASA has very stringent quality controls, so this is a huge achievement,” he added.

Indeed, this is the kind of space collaboration that NASA is looking for since President Obama’s redirection of space exploration priorities.

When speaking with Kimel, I was especially interested to hear how Kentucky Space operates. “It’s kind of a ‘mash-up’,” he told me when describing the range of groups that made this endeavor possible. There are university researchers, students, enthusiasts and now, by teaming up with NanoRacks LLC, they have a strong partnership with a profit-making organization.

Kentucky Space and NanoRacks will offer their system to research groups to house their own experiments (while still providing CubeLab support), but Kimel pointed out that his organization will be carrying out experiments of their own, focusing on the microgravity biomedical field.

Space Research can be Ubiquitous

So could this be the future of space research? Kimel thinks so, after all, you don’t often associate the state of Kentucky with cutting edge space research! Space is ubiquitous; once launch and technology costs are pushed lower, a wider range of non-profit and for-profit organizations can get involved, no matter where they are located and whether or not they are funded by governments.

The NanoRack plus CubeLab (Kentucky Space/NanoRacks).

“Since NASA’s new focus on entrepreneurial space activities, we’ll see more organizations like Kentucky Space joining up with companies to get low-cost technology into space,” he said.

“Space is like the personal computer industry of the 1980′s.”

This is a good analogy, especially when remembering the infamous prediction by Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM in 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

In the 1980′s the computer industry exploded with advanced technology, cheap hardware and companies competing to dominate the market, making computers so affordable, anyone could own one. This formed the basis of the home computer industry today where computers are installed in every facet of our lives.

Once again, micro-technology is shrinking the size of components and private industry is making launch costs cheaper. When combined, they are stimulating a potential explosion of space research, the start of which we are seeing today. In 50 years time, saying, “I think there is a world market for maybe five space research platforms,” may sound just as absurd as Watson’s 1943 prediction — a mindset that ultimately led to the demise of IBM’s dominance over the computer industry.

Next Up: Orbital “CubeSats”

Kentucky Space is no stranger to putting stuff into space either. On March 27, 2010, one of their own suborbital “CubeSats” was successfully launched by a Terrier-Improved Malamute rocket from NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Va. (video below).

The first orbital CubeSat is scheduled to be launched with NASA’s Glory mission in November 2010.

All in all, the NanoRack/CubeLab concept is a very exciting one, opening the doors to entrepreneurial space research, joining the upward trend of commercialized spaceflight while getting students, researchers, entrepreneurs and NASA to work together toward a common goal.

Image (top): Microgravity science is valuable to a range of institutions, and the space station is the premier destination for such research. The image shows a stunning view of Earth from the International Space Station as photographed by Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi (NASA/JAXA).