Tag Archives: cubesats

MarCO cubesats almost failed just before InSight landing

According to a report by one of its engineers, contact was lost with the two MarCo cubesats just prior to InSight’s landing on Mars, and was recovered just in time.

The team spent all day looking at the fault tree to fix the issue, Klesh recalled. “At 6:05 a.m. [California time] the next morning, MarCO-B shows up just on time,” apparently recovering automatically from an attitude-control issue, Klesh said. He proudly told mission managers at 6:30 a.m. that both cubesats were ready to go.

But then, “45 minutes later,” he said, “MarCO-A disappeared.”

At that point, it was too late to make any changes. JPL had already sent its last commands to InSight and MarCO through NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) of telescopes that communicate with spacecraft far out in the solar system. So the engineers could only watch and wait. “We didn’t know what was going to happen [during landing] in a few hours’ time,” Klesh said.

Luckily for the team, MarCO-A (and its twin) both popped into communications at 12:14 p.m. and succeeded in relaying data from the InSight touchdown, sending back valuable information about the dangerous entry, descent and landing phase to NASA engineers to plan for future missions.

They have traced the issue of MarCo-A’s disappearance to being blinded by the light from Mars, thus confusing its star tracker. That both spacecraft auto-recovered when contact with Earth was lost however is I think a fine testament to their design.

Share

Too many smallsat rockets to count

Capitalism in space: According to a report by a Northrop Grumman engineer who has been trying to list these things, the number of companies trying to develop small rockets for the burgeoning smallsat market has grown so large that it is now difficult to track.

Of the 148 small launch vehicles on a popular industry watch list, about 40 efforts “are likely dead but the watch list continues to grow,” Carlos Niederstrasser, a Northrop Grumman master systems engineer, said at the 2019 International Astronautical Congress here.

The problem for Niederstrasser and anyone trying to keep up with the market is that the list continues to grow. “Every time I kill off one [launch vehicle], two more show up,” he said.

…U.S. companies are responsible for 21 of the vehicles Niederstrasser considers active development programs. Seven are from China, four from Spain and three from the United Kingdom. Germany, India and Japan each have two small rocket development programs. Many other countries have a single effort underway.

We should see the shake-out in this new market take place during the next five years. By then at least four rockets should be operational, and the smallsat technology more mature and capable of many things now done by larger satellites.

Share

Scientists propose mission to interstellar comet Borisov

In a paper published on the Cornell arXIiv site for preprint science papers, scientists have posted a paper proposing sending an unmanned probe to the newly discovered interstellar Comet Borisov, arriving in 2045.

You can download the paper here. [pdf]

Their analysis found that we just missed the ideal and most efficient launch date using the Falcon Heavy. If it had launched in July 2018 a two-ton spacecraft could have reached Comet Borisov by next month.

The best alternative option is a launch in January 2030, flying past Jupiter, then the Sun, and arriving in 2045. Because of the mission’s close approach to the Sun to gain speed, the mission would require the type of shielding developed for the Parker Solar Probe. If the Space Launch System was used for launch, a six-ton spacecraft could be sent. With other available rockets the largest possible payload would be 3 kilograms (about 6 pounds), making the probe a cubesat. As they note,

Despite this very low mass, a CubeSat-scale spacecraft could be sent to the interstellar object. Existing interplanetary CubeSats (Mars Cube One) show that there is no principle obstacle against using such a small spacecraft to deep space.

In fact, having a decade and a half before launch guarantees that a cubesat will be able to do this job, because by 2030 the technology for using smallsats for this kind of planetary mission should be fully developed.

Share

Russian Soyuz rocket successfully launches 33 satellites into orbit

In its first Vostochny launch in 2019, Russia today used its Soyuz rocket to successfully launch a variety of weather, engineering, and Earth observation satellites totaling 33 into orbit.

As I write this the satellites are in orbit but have not yet been deployed by the rocket’s Fregat upper stage, a process that will take several hours as it moves them into a variety of orbits.

Many of the smaller satellites on this rockets are commercial cubesats, and are Russia’s effort to regain some of its lost commercial business that had been captured by SpaceX. They are also a sign of the changing launch business. Previously Russia’s commercial flights were all on its larger Proton rocket because the satellites were larger. Now the business is shifting to the smaller and recently more reliable Soyuz, because smaller satellites are beginning to dominate the industry.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

9 China
8 SpaceX
6 Russia
5 Europe (Arianespace)
3 India
3 Rocket Lab

The U.S. continues to lead China 14 to 9 in the national rankings.

Share

One smallsat satellite company hires another

Capitalism in space: One smallsat satellite company, Exolaunch, has hired another smallsat company, Momentus, to provide it with in-space transportation capabilities.

Exolaunch, the German launch services provider formerly known as ECM Space, signed a contract to pay in-space transportation startup Momentus more than $6 million to move satellites in low Earth orbit in 2020 with a service called Vigoride and from low Earth to geosynchronous orbit in 2021 with Vigoride Extended.

With Vigoride, Exolaunch will send “cubesat and microsatellite constellations to multiple orbits, giving clients an unprecedented flexibility of satellite deployment, reducing the price of launch, and giving access to orbits not typical for ridesharing vehicles,” Dmitriy Bogdanov, Exolaunch chief executive, said in a statement. “We also plan to deliver smallsats to geosynchronous orbit using the Vigoride Extended service. Momentus will enable us to service a larger segment of the market by enabling our customers to reach custom orbits in an efficient and cost-effective manner.”

Essentially, Momentus is building a cubesat-sized rocket engine that can be used to transport other cubesats from one orbit to another. The engine apparently uses water as the fuel in a ion-type engine, and will be tested in space for the first time in the next few months.

Momentus’s business plan seems quite clever. Up until now smallsats, especially those launched as secondary payloads, have not had a way to change their orbits, once deployed from their rocket. Momentus is offering this capability, at the very moment we are about to see a boom in the number of smallsats launched.

Share

MarCO interplanetary cubesats likely dead

More than two months after they provided relay communications for the landing of InSight on Mars, and more than a month since any contact has been heard from them, engineers now consider the two MarCO cubesats to likely be dead.

Now well past Mars, the daring twins seem to have reached their limit. It’s been over a month since engineers have heard from MarCO, which followed NASA’s InSight to the Red Planet. At this time, the mission team considers it unlikely they’ll be heard from again.

MarCO, short for Mars Cube One, was the first interplanetary mission to use a class of mini-spacecraft called CubeSats. The MarCOs – nicknamed EVE and WALL-E, after characters from a Pixar film – served as communications relays during InSight’s landing, beaming back data at each stage of its descent to the Martian surface in near-real time, along with InSight’s first image. WALL-E sent back stunning images of Mars as well, while EVE performed some simple radio science.

All of this was achieved with experimental technology that cost a fraction of what most space missions do: $18.5 million provided by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which built the CubeSats.

WALL-E was last heard from on Dec. 29; EVE, on Jan. 4. Based on trajectory calculations, WALL-E is currently more than 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) past Mars; EVE is farther, almost 2 million miles (3.2 million kilometers) past Mars.

Their loss of contact more than a month after the November landing of InSight actually shows their incredible success. Both MarCO cubesats functions well past Mars, demonstrating that these tiny satellites can do much of the same things bigger satellites costing billions do.

Share

Rocket Lab completes its third successful launch in 2018

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today (Sunday) successfully launched thirteen cubesats using its Electron rocket.

With this third launch, Rocket Lab now has more launches than Northrop Grumman (formerly Orbital ATK), a launch operation that has been around since the 1980s.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race remain unchanged:

35 China
20 SpaceX
13 Russia
10 Europe (Arianespace)
8 ULA

China still leads the U.S. 35 to 33 in the national rankings.

Share

A cubesat communications satellite for the Moon

Capitalism in space: The smallsat company Surrey Satellite Technology is designing a cubesat communications satellite set for launch in 2021 designed to test technology for providing communications in lunar space.

Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) has today announced that it is designing a low cost 35kg lunar communications satellite mission called DoT-4, targeted for a 2021 launch. DoT-4 will provide the communications relay back to Earth using the Goonhilly Deep Space Network, and will link up with a rover on the surface of the Moon. SSTL is currently in discussions with a number of parties for the lunar mission, and expects to disclose further information on mission partners and funding early in 2019.

Sarah Parker, Managing Director of SSTL, said “SSTL has led the way in pioneering the use of small satellites for over 30 years and we are now raising our sights to change the economics of space around the Moon, and beyond.”

DoT-4 will be the pre-cursor mission for a larger lunar communications satellite to follow in the 2023 timeframe which will carry a more robust payload and which will also have the potential for navigation services. SSTL’s ultimate aim is to launch a full constellation of lunar communications satellites offering full service capability to enable new and regular opportunities for science and exploration and economic development of the space environment beyond Earth’s orbit.

It appears that Surrey is trying to grab the market for providing communications services for both NASA’s Gateway project as well as the number of private small lunar rovers that are expected to launch in the coming years.

I should add that this project probably only exists because Surrey and its investors know that it will have affordable access to space, using the new smallsat rockets coming from Rocket Lab, Vector, and Virgin Orbital.

Share

The MarCo cubesat success

Mars as seen by MarCo-B

The two MarCO cubesats that successfully relayed data from InSight to Earth during its landing yesterday continue to function, with one even sending back images. The photo on the right, cropped and reduced slightly to post here, was taken by MarCo-B.

Neither of the MarCO CubeSats carry science instruments, but that didn’t stop the team from testing whether future CubeSats could perform useful science at Mars. As MarCO-A flew by, it conducted some impromptu radio science, transmitting signals through the edge of Mars’ atmosphere. Interference from the Martian atmosphere changes the signal when received on Earth, allowing scientists to determine how much atmosphere is present and, to some degree, what it’s made of.

“CubeSats have incredible potential to carry cameras and science instruments out to deep space,” said John Baker, JPL’s program manager for small spacecraft. “They’ll never replace the more capable spacecraft NASA is best known for developing. But they’re low-cost ride-alongs that can allow us to explore in new ways.”

As a bonus, some consumer-grade cameras aboard MarCO provided “drive-by” images as the CubeSats sailed past Mars. MarCO-B was programmed to turn so that it could image the planet in a sequence of shots as it approached Mars (before launch, MarCO-A’s cameras were found to be either non-functioning or too blurry to use).

This engineering test proves that we don’t need to build billion dollar spacecraft every time we wish to send an unmanned scouting ship to another world. Cubesats will soon do the job quite well, and for a tenth the cost.

And there will be a lot of money to be made. Governments and private entities of all types will be eager to buy the services of the garage-built planetary cubesats that private companies are going to soon be building, in large numbers.

Share

First interplanetary image from a cubesat

One of the two MarCO cubesats launched with the InSight Mars lander has successfully taken its first picture of Mars, the first such image ever taken by an interplanetary cubesat.

The image itself is not that interesting, with Mars not much more than a dot. What makes this significant is that it proves that a small, inexpensive cubesat can be built with the capability to accurately point and take photographs during an interplanetary mission. This means that the entire field of interplanetary probes is prime for major changes, shifting from big expensive and rarely launched spacecraft to small inexpensive cubesats launching frequently and it large numbers.

Share

Japan to launch space elevator experiment to ISS

When Japan launches its unmanned freighter to ISS on September 10, it will carry a two-cubesat engineering test of some of the concepts required to build a space elevator.

In the experiment, which will be the first of its kind in space, two ultrasmall cubic satellites, or “cubesats,” will be released into space from the station. They will be connected by a steel cable, where a small container — acting like an elevator car — will move along the cable using its own motor. A camera attached to the satellites will record the movements of the container in space, according to the Japanese newspaper The Mainichi.

Each cubesat measures just under 4 inches (10 centimeters) on each side. The cubesats will be connected by a 33-foot-long (10 meters) steel cable for the “elevator car” to move along, according to the report.

I wonder if this experiment will also test some of the technology needed for generating electricity using a tether. Over the decades there have been a number of experimental attempts in space of this concept, all of which have failed for a variety of reasons, all unrelated to the concept itself.

Share

3D-printed solar panels for cubesats!

A solar panel for a cubesat

The image on the right was sent to me last night by engineer Joe Latrell. It shows a 3D-printed solar panel designed for use on a cubesat. As he wrote,

[This is] the first integration of a solar panel with the 3D printed material. The panel is not attached but rather embedded in the plastic during the printing process. This helps protect the panel from transport damage and makes it easier to assemble the final satellite. This design needs a slight adjustment but is almost there.

What makes Joe’s work most interesting is where he is doing it. Last week, in posting a link to a story about a Rocket Lab deal that would make secondary payloads possible on its smallsat rocket Electron, I noted that things were moving to a point where someone could build a satellite for launch in his garage.

This in turn elicited this comment from Joe:

As a matter of fact, I am building a PocketQube satellite for launch in Q3 2019. Yes, I am working in a small shop – just behind the garage. Nothing fancy but the price was right. I am working with Alba Orbital and the flight is scheduled on the Electron. These are very exciting times.

Alba Orbital is smallsat company aimed at building lots of mass produced smallsats weighing only about two pounds.

Anyway, Joe then followed up with another comment with more information:

This first [satellite] is just to see if it can be done. I plan to have it take a couple images and relay data regarding the orientation methods I am planning to use (gravity and magnetic fields). If it works, I am hoping to get funding to develop a small series of satellites to track global water use.

It is also a good way to test some of the materials I think would make spacecraft lighter and cheaper.

Yesterday he sent me the above image. This is the future of unmanned satellites and planetary probes, small, light, cheap, and built with 3D printers by single entrepreneurs. And because of their inexpensive nature, the possibilities for profit and growth are truly almost infinite, which in turn will provide developments that make space travel for humans increasingly smaller, lighter, cheaper, and easier to build as well.

To repeat Joe’s comment, these are very exciting times.

Share

Chinese cubesat using Saudi Arabian camera sends back first pictures

A Chinese cubesat, launched as a secondary payload with China’s lunar communications satellite for its upcoming Chang’e-4 mission, used a Saudi Arabian camera to successfully send back its first images this week.

Two of the three images show the Earth rising above the lunar horizon. The third looks down at the Moon’s cratered surface.

These images I think are the first interplanetary images ever taken and successfully transmitted to Earth by a interplantary cubesat mission. Both China and Saudi Arabia should be lauded for the success. It proves that cubesats have the potential to do everything that fullsize satellites do, at much lower cost, and therefore marks the beginning of a revolution in unmanned planetary spacecraft design.

In related news, that lunar communications satellite has now officially reached its Lagrande point.

The satellite, named Queqiao (Magpie Bridge) and launched on May 21, entered the Halo orbit around the second Lagrangian (L2) point of the Earth-Moon system, about 65,000 km from the Moon, at 11:06 a.m. Thursday after a journey of more than 20 days. “The satellite is the world’s first communication satellite operating in that orbit, and will lay the foundation for the Chang’e-4, which is expected to become the world’s first soft-landing, roving probe on the far side of the Moon,” said Zhang Hongtai, president of the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST).

The concept of the Halo orbit around the Earth-Moon L2 point was first put forward by international space experts in 1950s.

While in orbit, the relay satellite can see both the Earth and the far side of the Moon. The satellite can stay in the Halo orbit for a long time due to its relatively low use of fuel, since the Earth’s and Moon’s gravity balances the orbital motion of the satellite.

Share

Proposed new FCC regulations would shut out student cubesats

We’re here to help you! Proposed new FCC regulations on the licensing of smallsats would raise the licensing cost for student-built cubesats so much that universities would likely have to shut down the programs.

In a move that threatens U.S. education in science, technology, engineering and math, and could have repercussions throughout the country’s aerospace industry, the FCC is proposing regulations that may license some educational satellite programs as commercial enterprises. That could force schools to pay a US$135,350 annual fee – plus a $30,000 application fee for the first year – to get the federal license required for a U.S. organization to operate satellite communications.

It would be a dramatic increase in costs. The most common type of small satellite used in education is the U.S.-developed CubeSat. Each is about 10 inches on a side and weighs 2 or 3 pounds. A working CubeSat that can take pictures of the Earth can be developed for only $5,000 in parts. They’re assembled by volunteer students and launched by NASA at no charge to the school or college. Currently, most missions pay under $100 to the FCC for an experimental license, as well as several hundred dollars to the International Telecommunications Union, which coordinates satellite positions and frequencies. [emphasis mine]

If these new and very high licensing fees are correct I find them shocking. As noted in the quote, building a cubesat costs practically nothing, only about $5,000. The new fees thus add gigantic costs to the satellite’s development, and could literally wipe the market out entirely. They certainly will end most university programs that have students build cubesats as a first step towards learning how to build satellites.

These new regulations appear to be part of the Trump administration’s effort to streamline and update the regulatory process for commercial space. It also appears that the FCC has fumbled badly here in its part of this process.

Share

Mars cubesats take picture of Earth and Moon

One of the two MarCO cubesats heading to Mars on the first interplanetary cubesat mission, has taken its a picture of the Earth and the Moon.

NASA set a new distance record for CubeSats on May 8 when a pair of CubeSats called Mars Cube One (MarCO) reached 621,371 miles (1 million kilometers) from Earth. One of the CubeSats, called MarCO-B (and affectionately known as “Wall-E” to the MarCO team) used a fisheye camera to snap its first photo on May 9. That photo is part of the process used by the engineering team to confirm the spacecraft’s high-gain antenna has properly unfolded.

As a bonus, it captured Earth and its moon as tiny specks floating in space.

In a few weeks the two cubesats will make a mid-course correction, also the first time a cubesat has attempted such a thing.

Share

The two Mars cubesats flying in formation with InSight

Even as the InSight lander heads to Mars, it is being accompanied by two test cubesats, the first such smallsats to ever fly an interplanetary mission.

The MARCO mission objective is a challenging one. The team will provide a dedicated relay during Mars InSight’s descent to the surface of the Red Planet on November 26, 2018. Rather than entering orbit, the CubeSats will pass 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) from Mars during the larger mission’s crucial landing phase. Mars will be 97.5 million miles (157 million kilometers) away at the time, making for an 8.7-light-minute communications lag from Mars to the Earth. The lag means that NASA engineers will need to wait 8.7 minutes to see whether the landing was successful, equivalent to Curiosity’s “seven minutes of terror;” meanwhile, if all goes well, MARCO will have a front-row seat to the show. While the success of the InSight mission isn’t dependent on MARCO, the CubeSats will provide a black box data recorder of all aspects of the mission’s descent.

If these cubesats succeed in accomplishing their engineering test missions, their true innovation will not be engineering but cost reduction. If they prove that cubesats can be designed as interplanetary probes, the costs to build and launch such missions will be drastically reduced. Not only do cubesats routinely use cheaper off-the-shelf components, they are far lighter than standard satellites, which means a smaller, cheaper rocket can launch them.

The data-relay test of these cubesats however is quite important, nonetheless. See my post above.

Share

Federal bureaucracy prevents satellite launch

We’re here to help you! A suite of 8 private commercial cubesats that the Air Force had agreed to launch as secondary payloads on the August 26 launch of a Minotaur rocket were blocked from launch by FAA bureaucracy.

The “interagency partner” that appeared to raise objections was the Federal Aviation Administration, which issued the launch license for the mission. “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not approve Orbital ATK’s request for a license modification to include commercial cubesats on the upcoming ORS-5 launch mission,” Guthrie said. “As a result, Orbital ATK decided not to include commercial cubesats on the launch.”

Asked if the FAA placed any conditions or restrictions on the ORS-5 mission launched on the Minotaur 4, agency spokesman Hank Price said the FAA issued Orbital ATK a license Feb. 10 to launch government payloads on the Minotaur 4 from Cape Canaveral. The launch license contains any and all conditions on the license, Price said, and the FAA does not comment on the “existence or status of launch license applications or modifications until the FAA makes a final decision regarding those requests.”

Industry sources believe the FAA never formally rejected a proposed license modification for the cubesats because it did not go through the official process, but it was informally clear that the agency would have rejected such a modification had it been formally submitted.

Spire officials are trying to figure out why there was any issue at all about commercial cubesats on this launch. “If Spire chose this launch in the place of another commercial offering, I would understand the industry’s concern about fair competition,” Barna said. “But no existing U.S. launch company or new entrant was offering a similar launch. The fundamental intent of the policy is to keep competition fair, and competition just wasn’t a factor here.”

Spire’s problems here demonstrates the difficulties smallsat companies have getting their satellites in orbit, which explains the emergence of a new smallsat rocket industry. The company’s difficulties also illustrates why the launch industry should always be opposed to giving too much regulatory power to government. In this case it really appears that the launch license was denied merely because the bureaucrats involved with approving it at the FAA simply didn’t want to bother dealing with it.

Share

Problems with 6 of 72 cubesats launched by Soyuz

Of the 72 cubesats launched by a Russian Soyuz rocket on July 14, 6 have unexpected problems.

Four of the 72 miniature satellites sent into orbit July 14 on a Russian Soyuz 2.1a rocket alongside the primary customer, the Kanopus-V-IK Russian Earth-imaging satellite, are not responding to commands from their operators and two additional cubesats are not in their intended orbits.

It appears that a variety of causes are behind the problems, not all of which are related to the Soyuz.

Posted from Torrey, Utah, just outside Capitol Reef.

Share

Cubesat builder becomes cubesat operator as well

Capitalism in space: Cubesat builder Clyde Space has commissioned its first satellite communications ground station, with three more planned.

Essentially, the company appears to be moving to fill a need expressed by its satellite customers. After building their satellite for them, their customers still need someone to run it for them, and the satellite maker is ideally positioned to win that role.

This story also illustrates the continuing simplification of the technology of the satellite industry. Ground stations used to be big complicated facilities, requiring big dishes and lots of land. Now they can simply install an antenna on the roof of a building.

Share

Has India cut its cubesat launch prices?

Capitalism in space: A complex analysis of India’s recent launch prices suggests that ISRO reduced its cubesat launch prices when it launched a record-setting 103 satellites on the most recent PSLV launch.

The key paragraph however is this:

Small-satellite owners have long complained that the PSLV, whose reliability has been established in the market, has been slow to increase its launch tempo at a time of surging cubesat production. For the moment, none of these satellite customers’ launch options provide predictable launch cadence at affordable prices.

That may be about to change as several dozen vehicles designed specifically to accommodate the growing cubesat market are preparing to enter operations. Not all are likely to succeed in establishing a foothold, but the sheer number of them is impressive:

That makes it all the more important for ISRO’s Antrix Corp., the agency’s commercial arm, to cement a reputation for launch regularity and low prices.

In other words, because a flock of new smallsat launch companies, such as Rocket Lab, Vector, and Virgin Orbit, are about to enter the market ISRO is suddenly feeling the pressure, which is why they have cut prices as well as started to up their launch rate.

Isn’t competition wonderful?

Share

Surrey Satellite closing U.S. factory

Capitalism in space: Surrey Satellite Technology, one of the first companies to build smallsats and cubesats, is closing its U.S. factory in Colorado and concentrating its satellite work once again in the UK.

It appears the company might have gotten a little fat and lazy, and has allowed the competition to begin passing it by:

Parker said the exact number of people SST-US will let go has not been determined. SSTL’s decision to layoff workers in the U.S. is not related to the decline in geostationary telecommunications satellite orders that triggered a reduction in workers at Space Systems Loral, Parker said. The majority of SSTL’s business is in remote sensing, navigation and science — spacecraft typically found in non-geosynchronous orbits.

Instead, Parker said it was more out of concern that the smallsat movement the company had championed for years had picked up steam and was moving without SSTL. “We had grown slightly fatter, slightly more complacent, so we are doing a lot of work on our organization. We started last year and changed our organizational structure internally. We changed the way our teams are organized so we now have a much flatter structure with more autonomy,” she said.

SSTL is not reducing its headcount in the U.K., Parker said.

This kind of reminds me of ULA’s recent effort to streamline its operations, faced with competition from SpaceX. Here, Surrey is finding itself getting beat by a lot of new players, and had found it needs to reshape itself to survive.

Share

Israeli student cubesat launched from Atlas 5

When the Cygnus capsule was placed in orbit yesterday, it also released a number of nanosats, one of which was a cubesat built by Israeli high school students.

More than 80 pupils in grades 9-12 at schools in Herzliya, Ofakim, Yeruham, Ofra, and the Bedouin town of Hura helped to construct Duchifat-2, which weighs just 1.8 kilograms (four pounds), and is just 20 centimeters (eight inches) tall and 10 centimeters wide. Due to its small size, the satellite has no motors and instead uses the earth’s magnetic field to keep itself correctly aligned in space.

Cubesats have generally been built and launched as college projects to help teach students the engineering behind satellites. This however was the only nanosat released by the Atlas 5 that involved high school students.

Note also that the project did not simply involve Jewish students.

Share

Designing a propulsion system for cubesats

The competition heats up: Just like the Chinese tests of a smallsat propulsion system noted in my previous post, this U.S. company is designing a propulsion system for cubesats.

McDevitt’s propulsion system is deceptively simple. It combines rocket-fuel-grade hydrogen peroxide with a patented proprietary catalyst to create a chemical reaction that results in thrust channeled through tiny square nozzles incorporated into the small satellite. The system allows the satellites to be steered or stopped. The only byproduct of McDevitt’s tiny rocket motors is water vapor.

Except for this quote the article doesn’t provide much information about the design, probably because the builders didn’t reveal the details for proprietary reasons. They hope to launch a test satellite by 2018.

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share
1 2