Tag Archives: cubesats

Aerojet Rocketdyne gets NASA contract for cubesat engine

The competition heats up: Aerojet Rocketdyne has signed a contract with NASA to develop a small thruster engine for use on cubesats.

The MPS-130 green propulsion system will allow CubeSats and SmallSats to increase their capabilities, such as extending mission life, increasing architecture resiliency, maneuvering to higher and lower orbits, and performing complex proximity operations and formation flying. The use of additive manufacturing also reduces the number of parts and amount of time required to fabricate and assemble the modular propulsion system, lowering the cost of small satellites for private and public operators. Under the contract, Aerojet Rocketdyne will deliver a fully-integrated MPS-130 green modular propulsion system for flight demonstration, as well as conduct development and validation testing.

The press release does not say how much money NASA is providing. Regardless, this is a great opportunity for Aerojet Rocketdyne, because the smallsat industry is I think about to take off, and at the moment these tiny satellites lack any useful technology for maneuvering. Up until now they were mostly designed as temporary short term satellites built mostly to teach students. Soon, however, there will be a lot of privately-built commercial smallsats launched, designed to make money. Being able to sell their builders a thruster that could prolong their life and make them more capable will give Aerojet Rocketdyne a product that will certainly sell like hotcakes.

Cubesats to the planets!

Link here. The article is a good detailed overview of the many upcoming planetary missions that are using small and relatively inexpensive cubesats as either part of their mission, or are the mission itself.

This trend also partly explains the number of new rocket companies like Rocket Lab and Firefly Space Systems that are developing small rockets aimed at launching cubesats. These companies have recognized a growing demand, and are trying to serve it. As the article notes,

Lifts are so hard to come by that the first interplanetary CubeSat — NASA’s twin INSPIRE mini-spacecraft, intended to test key technology for future missions — has been waiting for almost two years. “We still have to find a ride,” says Anthony Freeman, who manages the Innovation Foundry at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Using lasers to travel to the stars

The competition really heats up! A research team at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) has proposed that an array of space-based lasers can be used to accelerate a solar sail to speeds as much as 26% the speed of light, thus making interstellar travel possible.

[The] key breakthrough was the development of modular arrays of synchronized high-power lasers, fed by a common “seed laser.” The modularity removes the need for building powerful lasers as a single device, splitting them instead into manageable parts and powering the seed laser with relatively little energy. Lockheed Martin has recently exploited this advance to manufacture powerful new weapons for the US Army. In March last year, the aerospace and defense giant demonstrated a 30 kW laser weapon (and its devastating effect on a truck). By October, the laser’s power had already doubled to 60 kW and offered the option to reach 120 kW by linking two modules using off-the-shelf components.

The UCSB researchers refer to their own planned arrays as DE-STAR (Directed Energy System for Targeting of Asteroids and ExploRation), with a trailing number to denote their size. A DE-STAR-1 would be a square array 10 meters (33 ft) per side and about as powerful as Lockheed’s latest; at the other end of the spectrum, a DE-STAR-4 would be a 70 GW array covering a massive area of 100 square kilometers (39 square miles).

…Lubin stresses that even a relatively modest orbital array could offer interesting propulsion capabilities to CubeSats and nanosatellites headed beyond Earth orbit, and that useful initial tests would still be conducted on the ground first on one-meter (3-ft) arrays, gradually ramping up toward assembling small arrays in orbit. While even a small laser array could accelerate probes of all sizes, the larger 70-GW system would of course be the most powerful, capable of generating enough thrust to send a CubeSat probe to Mars in eight hours – or a much larger 10,000-kg (22,000-lb) craft to the same destination in a single month, down from a typical six to eight.

Further upgrades would make it possible to send a cubesate and its lightsail to Alpha Centuri in about fifteen years.

The important point here is that it appears that all the technology for building this already exists, or is relatively straightforward to develop.

First SLS launch will carry 13 cubesats

NASA today announced that the first test flight of its giant SLS rocket, more powerful than the Saturn 5 and intended to make human missions beyond Earth orbit possible, will carry 13 cubesats in addition to its Orion capsule.

Because the mission plans on sending the unmanned Orion on an Earth orbit beyond the Moon, these cubesats will have an opportunity to go where no cubesat has gone before.

Another company enters the orbital remote sensing field

The competition heats up: A California company, Hera Systems, has announced plans to launch 9 cubesats late in 2016 to provide commercial imagery of the Earth.

Hera Systems of San Jose, California, is planning to launch nine cubesat-class spacecraft in late 2016 that will be able to provide images at resolutions of up to one meter over several spectral bands, as well as video. That initial constellation could grow in time to up to 48 satellites, allowing the company to take images of the same location several times a day.

This field is becoming very crowded. Either there will be a significant shake-out, or we will see a burst of profits that will invigorate it even more. The companies all seem to think there is enough business to justify their existence.

ULA is adding cubesat capability to its Atlas 5

The competition heats up: ULA has announced that they are adding a cubesat launch capability to their Atlas 5 rocket so that by 2017 they will be able to place in orbit as many as 24 cubesats per launch, as secondary payloads.

In addition, the company will offer universities to compete for six launch slots at no charge.

“ULA will offer universities the chance to compete for at least six CubeSat launch slots on two Atlas V missions, with a goal to eventually add university CubeSat slots to nearly every Atlas and Vulcan launch,” noted Tory Bruno, ULA president and CEO. “There is a growing need for universities to have access and availability to launch their CubeSats and this program will transform the way these universities get to space by making space more affordable and accessible.”

This offer is ULA’s way of trying to capture some of that growing smallsat market that companies like Rocket Labs and Virgin Galactic are trying to grab.

Smallsat rocket launchers get NASA contracts

The competition heats up: NASA this week awarded contracts ranging from $4.7 to $6.9 million to three different smallsat launch companies.

The companies are Firefly Space Systems, Rocket Lab USA, and Virgin Galactic. The second is the company that just won the contract to put a privately-built lunar rover on the moon (part of the Google Lunar X-Prize).

In the past, cubesats and other small satellites could only afford to be secondary payloads on much larger rockets. Thus, they were at the mercy of the needs of the primary payload, often resulting in significant unplanned delays before launch. This in turn acted to discourage the development of smallsats. Now, with these private launch companies designed to service them exclusively the smallsat industry should start to boom.

Note also the low cost of these contracts. The small size of cubesats and the launchers designed for them means everything about them costs much less. Putting an unmanned probe into space is thus much more affordable.

Smallsat company buys its own Falcon 9 rocket to launch 20 satelites

The competition heats up: Spaceflight Industries has purchased a single dedicated Falcon 9 rocket launch to launch 20 small satellites sometime in 2017.

Buying a dedicated launch, rather that seeking excess capacity on other launches, provides Spaceflight with more than just additional payload capacity. Secondary or “rideshare” payloads are subject to the schedule of the primary capability, and can be bumped off the launch if the mass of the primary payload grows. With a dedicated mission, Spaceflight is in greater control. “It helps us establish a regular cadence of launches,” Blake said. “We can book all kinds of rideshare passengers onto something that is going to be there at a certain time to a certain orbit.”

This purchase also indicates the growing strength of the smallsat industry. These companies are beginning to gain the investment capital to buy their own launches rather than fly as secondary payloads.

China debuts another new rocket

The competition heats up: China successfully completed the first launch of another new rocket today, putting three technology satellites into orbit with its solid-fueled Long March 11 rocket.

The Long March-11 (Chang Zhwng-11) is a small solid-fueled quick-reaction launch vehicle developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). It’s goal is to provide an easy to operate quick-reaction launch vehicle, that can remain in storage for long period and to provide a reliably launch on short notice. Very little is known about the rocket, with only one badly taken photo available on the internet. However, LM-11 is known to be a solid-fueled launch vehicle equipped with a liquid-fueled trim stage.

Moreover, the three satellites the rocket put in orbit are cubesats designed to test formation flying technologies. This puts China in the forefront of the effort to make these tiny satellites capable of doing what larger satellites now do, thus making possible the eventual replacement of those more costly larger satellites.

Cubesats to the Moon!

NASA has chosen three cubesat missions to fly lunar planetary orbiters to the Moon, to be launched on the first SLS flight in 2018.

LunaH-Map, along with a number of other deep-space CubeSats, is a candidate to fly to lunar orbit on Exploration Mission-1, the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), which will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will enable astronauts in the Orion spacecraft to travel deeper into the solar system. NASA will provide several CubeSat missions spots on the maiden SLS mission. LunaH-Map is a 6U (“6 unit”) CubeSat. One “unit” is a cube measuring 4.7 inches on a side; LunaH-Map strings six of these CubeSat building blocks together and weighs as much as a small child (about 30 pounds). …

“NASA has funded three different CubeSats to learn more: Lunar IceCube, Lunar FLASHLIGHT and LunaH-Map. They all look for water in different ways and provide different types of information,” [said principal investigator Craig Hardgrove].

The article is focused on LunaH-Map, not on the other two cubesats, but the fact that NASA plans to use “the most powerful rocket ever built” to launch the first three planetary cubesats, so small they could almost be launched by a model rocket, illustrates some of the problems of the SLS program. Even though that first SLS flight is likely to happen, I suspect that, should it falter for any reason (something that would not surprise me), these cubesats could easily be launched on another rocket, and will be.

Putting SLS aside, however, the building of these first planetary cubesats is a very significant development. It once again signals the way unmanned satellite engineering is evolving, finding ways to build spacecraft smaller and less costly.

Cubesat company raises $80 million

The competition heats up: Spire, a cubesat satellite company focused on data gathering from space, has raised an additional $40 million in investment capital, bringing the total it has raised since 2012 to $80 million.

With the new funds, the company will support further growth and expand its constellation from 20 satellites in 2015 to more than 100 by the end of 2017.

The latest round of financing comes at a time when the need for advancements in weather and maritime data is at an all-time high. With the potentially catastrophic 2016 Weather Gap right around the corner, Spire offers a solution to the $2.4 trillion dollar global problem. Emerging as a leader in the ‘Space Race 2.0,’ Spire is the only commercial weather data provider with scheduled launches in 2015. The company will begin deploying its satellites on a near monthly basis beginning September 2015.

Though the company is willing to gather data in more ways than just weather, its offer to provide weather data suggests that the transition from government to private weather satellites is soon approaching. And there is no reason it shouldn’t. Weather data is very valuable. Just as private cable companies put up satellites to provide communications, so should weather outlets like the Weather Channel. It will pay for itself, and will likely provide us better data than any NOAA satellite.

In addition, this story indicates once again that the age of cubesats is now upon us.

NASA to launch first interplanetary cubesats

The competition heats up: When it launches its next Mars mission, a stationary lander, NASA will piggyback two cubesats, designed to fly past Mars and relay communications during the landing.

As I’ve noted earlier, standardized small cubesats are the future of unmanned satellite operations. Expect them to increasingly replace all types of larger satellites. And because they are small and cheap (both to make and launch), expect them to lead to a burst of new capitalistic activity in space.

Update: In related news, a small private company has delivered to NASA the first thrusters designed for cubesats. Up until now, cubesats have not been maneuverable. These thrusters will change that.

SpaceX begins planning a 4,000 satellite internet constellation

The competition heats up: SpaceX has filed papers with the FCC to begin testing the design and construction and launch of a constellation of 4,000 satellites for providing global internet access.

Musk’s FCC filing proposes tests starting next year. If all goes well, the service could be up and running in about five years. The satellites would be deployed from one of SpaceX’s rockets, the Falcon 9. Once in orbit, the satellites would connect to ground stations at three West Coast facilities. The purpose of the tests is to see whether the antenna technology used on the satellites will be able to deliver high-speed Internet to the ground without hiccups.

It appears to me that Musk’s constellation will be made up of cubesats, small and cheap to build, and easy to launch in large numbers as secondary payloads on every Falcon 9 launch. In other words, as long as SpaceX can get customers to pay for launches of large satellites on its Falcon 9, Musk will be able to launch and maintain his constellation of cubesats for free.

Stratolaunch considers multiple rockets for its giant airplane

The competition heats up: Stratolaunch is now considering widening its options for the upper stage that can be attached to its giant airplane.

[Chuck Beames, president of Seattle-based Vulcan Aerospace, the parent company of Stratolaunch Systems] said the interest in alternative launch options is driven by the growing interest in small satellites, for which the current Stratolaunch system is oversized. A smaller vehicle, he said, could be developed more quickly and less expensively. “It takes a more near-term focus on revenue generation,” he said.

Stratolaunch could eventually support several launch vehicles, he said, with varying payload capabilities to serve different customers. “We’ll likely have multiple launch vehicle options,” he said. “Some will be available earlier than others.”

It appears they are revising their launch system airplane into a modular design with a variety of upper stages, depending on customer. Note also the focus on the growing small satellite industry.

Cubesat satellite industry booming

The competition heats up: In 2014 more cubesats were launched than during the industry’s first ten years.

Without doubt the concept of cubesats is now taking the satellite industry by storm, mainly because of the advent of new electronic miniaturization. However, the most fascination part of this story was how the concept was born:

In 1999, Puig-Suari met with Bob Twiggs, at the time an aerospace engineer at Stanford University, to discuss ways of getting more student projects into space. “We had to do something to get more opportunities to launch these things,” recalls Twiggs, now at Morehead State University in Kentucky. They focused on slimming down the spacecraft, because weight drives up the cost of reaching orbit.

Over lunch at a sandwich shop in San Luis Obispo, Twiggs and Puig-Suari sketched out options on a napkin. They thought hard about the potential capabilities of a 10-centimeter cube with a mass limit of 1 kilogram—the size and weight of a liter of water. Clad in solar cells, the cube would eke out perhaps a watt of power, enough to power a small computer and a radio: “a Sputnik,” Puig-Suari says. Back at Stanford, Twiggs found the perfect life-size demonstration model: a plastic box used for storing the insanely popular stuffed animals known as Beanie Babies. A standard was born.

Read the whole thing. The low cost of these tiny satellites is about to revolutionize the entire unmanned space industry.

NASA to use giant SLS rocket to launch cubesats

The giant SLS rocket that NASA is building for billions will be used to launch eleven tiny 30 pound cubesats into deep space.

With room for 11 small shoebox-sized CubeSats on the first test flight of NASA’s behemoth Space Launch System, agency officials have turned to scientists, industry and students to fill the slots in time for launch in 2018. NASA has selected three CubeSats developed by internal government teams for flight on the SLS demonstration launch, and officials announced last week two more top candidates that could be manifested on the mission.

These will be the first cubesats ever sent beyond Earth orbit. Using SLS to get them into space, however, is very incongruous, since the very concept of cubesats is small and cheap, while SLS is everything but.

Build a satellite of your own for less than $30K

The competition heats up: An industry of new cubesat builders can now build satellites for anyone for any reason for very little money.

The miniaturisation of technology allows people to do more with less hardware, said Chad Anderson, the managing director of Space Angels Network, an investment house specialising in the space industry. That industry, he said, was worth $300bn (£200bn) last year. Constellations of smaller satellites, like those suggested as tracking devices for planes over oceans, are now a possibility. “The launch costs are coming down and people leveraging today’s technology are able to do more with less and launch less mass to orbit. The price point has come down to where start-ups and entrepreneurs can really make an impact on the scene for the first time,” he said.

When the first tiny satellite launch companies arrive, expect this industry to blossom at an astonishing rate.

Test flight of rail-guided launcher delayed to October

The competition heats up: The first test flight of a rail-guided military small satellite launcher has been delayed until October 2015.

“Launch delays of the new launch system were driven primarily by technical development challenges on the first stage motor including design and delivery of the rocket motor case and the integrated rocket motor,” Anttonen said in a response to written questions from Spaceflight Now. “This motor is now complete along with the rest of the launch vehicle, and the launch is on hold pending an opening in the range schedule,” Anttonen said.

The launch system is designed to provide launch capability for small satellites like cubesats, with a launch cost of $12 to $15 million. If successful, it will be a direct competitor to Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne, except that it appears it might be operational first.

Small satellite industry predicted to blossom

The competition heats up: An industry study now predicts that more than 500 small satellites, including nanosats, cubesats, microsats, and minisats, will be launched in the next five years.

Note however this important detail, highlighted below:

75% of the 510 satellites to be launched during the next five years will be for government civil and defense agencies. Growth in government demand will be stronger than in the commercial world where a total of 130 satellites are expected. “Large constellation projects such as those announced in 2014 by OneWeb and by SpaceX in association with Google have not been included in our forecasts/scenarios for launch by 2019,” said Rachel Villain, Principal Advisor at Euroconsult and Editor of the report. “Large constellation projects could, however, represent a very significant component of launches over the following five year period (2020-2024).” [emphasis mine]

Even though the predicted launches represent a two-thirds increase per year compared to the previous decade, this launch rate does not include the big private constellations that appear almost certain to fly. In other words, all signs point to the possibility that we are about to see a real boom in the space industry.

Virgin Galactic opens facility for developing LauncherOne

The competition heats up: Virgin Galactic announced today the establishment of a new facility to design and build the company’s LauncherOne rocket, aimed at putting into orbit very small cubesats at a very low price.

LauncherOne is an air-launch system for satellites weighing up to 225 kilograms. The system will use the same aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, as the company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle, but replaces SpaceShipTwo with a two-stage launch vehicle using engines fueled by liquid oxygen and kerosene.

At the Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference Feb. 4, William Pomerantz, vice president of special projects for Virgin Galactic, said the company has already tested engines and other “core infrastructure” of LauncherOne. “We are a fairly vertically-integrated team,” he said. “We really do control a lot of the production in house.”

As the article notes, Virgin Galactic is investing in OneWeb, which hopes to launch a constellation of 650 cubesats to provide broadband communications worldwide. It is likely that a partnership between the two companies exists to put many of those cubesats into orbit with LauncherOne.

This announcement also suggests to me that Virgin Galactic is beginning to shift its gaze from suborbital space tourism to orbital launch services, and in doing so is looking for new ways to make its investment in WhiteKnightTwo pay off.

Postgraduate plug-n-play cubesat manufacturers ship their first product

The company for cheaply mass-producing cubesats and their components — formed by two brothers while attending college last year — has shipped its first product.

RadioBro, the company founded by Mark and Eric Becnel, reached its first product milestone with a mini-satellite communications transceiver. “We prototyped it in June and did a production run,” says Mark Becnel, company president, who is also finishing up his aerospace engineering master’s degree at UAH. His brother, Eric, who is RadioBro vice president and chief engineer, graduated in 2013. “We accomplished some pre-sales and then did a full run of 100 units,” Becnel says. The MiniSatCom is offered in a variety of kits.

They now are developing a cubesat core that

will save cubesat developers the six months to two years of development time that’s normally required to make a disparate stack of various products work together to serve the same function, Becnel says. If the cubesat is built to generally accepted standards, the core will be plug and play, he says.

These guys have the right idea for space development. Instead of looking for jobs with other companies or NASA, they found a need in the aerospace industry and are filling it, cheaply and efficiently and thus saving everybody time and money. The result: They make money themselves selling their product.

A new cheap rocket company

The competition heats up: A New Zealand company says it is building a rocket capable of launching cubesats into orbit for only $5 million.

Rocket Lab says it is building a carbon-composited launch vehicle –named Electron—which will send small satellites into earth’s orbit for five million U.S. dollars. The U.S. company, which is building the vehicle in New Zealand, expects the first to be ready next year and already has committed to its first 30 launch slots.

Though their low cost will once again increase the space launch customer base, they are not really in competition with any of the big players, who don’t really make their money launching cubesats. Instead, by focusing on the cubesat market, Rocket Lab is aimed at providing launch services to a niche that has, up until now, had no real launch services. If a university or small company wanted to launch a cubesat., they had to piggyback on a large launch.

Two low-cost, car battery-sized Canadian space telescopes were launched successfully in Russia today

Two low-cost, car battery-sized Canadian space telescopes were launched successfully in Russia today.

The important detail here is this quote:

“BRITE-Constellation will exploit and enhance recent Canadian advances in precise attitude control that have opened up for space science the domain of very low cost, miniature spacecraft, allowing a scientific return that otherwise would have had price tags 10 to 100 times higher,” [emphasis mine]

Most nanosats and cubesats have not had the kind of precise attitude control of larger satellites, which is one of their limitations. If the technology is now maturing so that these tiny satellites can be pointed as accurately as bigger payloads, it will mean that unmanned satellites are going to get smaller very quickly. This lowers cost and increases the customer base, creating more business for launch companies.

Two brothers, also college students, have formed a company to build cubesats for researchers

The competition heats up: Two brothers, also college students, have formed a company to build cubesats for researchers.

Mark and Eric Becnel are aiming their company Radiobro at providing turnkey cube satellite services to researchers who have experiments they’d like to fly, but who don’t have the resources to build their own satellites to fly them. “There’s an unfilled niche there in supplying a need if a scientist wants to take an experiment and fly it in space,” Eric Becnel said. “The idea is to provide that researcher with an off-the-shelf solution.”

The solution will encompass both the hardware and software necessary for the research to take place and be monitored, the brothers said. “Maybe you’ve got a launch opportunity and a window to launch,” Mark Becnel said. “We can help you by delivering that satellite in as fast as 12 months.”

This is the kind of creative capitalism the American aerospace industry hasn’t seen from its new engineers in years. In my experience giving lectures at student chapters of the AIAA, aerospace students have routinely been focused on looking for a job, either at NASA or with one of the big aerospace companies. These guys are instead trying to create their own. I say, they have the right idea, and have picked the right venue at exactly the right time. If they do it right, they and their company Radiobro stand to be a big success.

The plans and proposed launch schedule of the new asteroid mining company, Deep Space Industries.

The plans and proposed launch schedule of the new asteroid mining company, Deep Space Industries.

They aim to do their work using cubesats, which will keep everything cheap and simple, with the first launches by 2015, and the first sample return missions by 2016. Their new manufacturing technology appears to be a variation of 3D printing, though the descriptions so far released remain vague on details.

We should have even more information later today, after their press conference, aired live on youtube here at 1 pm (eastern).