Just after 6 a.m. on Aug 13, 2013, the OC-Flight-1 picosatellite payload was flown on a sub-orbital testing experiment as part of the “RockSat-X 2013” competition at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. The payload was launched from a Terrier-Malemute sounding rocket to an altitude of ~170km, roughly half the altitude at which the picosatellite will orbit the earth and 70km above the Karman line (conventionally used as the start of outer space). At this altitude, the shell of the RockSat-X payload canister was ejected and the experiments were exposed to elements of the ionosphere.
The intent of testing this science payload in the upper atmosphere was to increase the level of confidence that each subsystem component will behave as intended during on-orbit operation. Since the team is planning on using low cost components-off-the-shelf (which haven’t been manufactured specifically for space applications), there will be a slight risk of adverse performance. By testing normal operation in space conditions, weak points in the design can be identified and adjustments can be made before a large amount of money is spent launching the satellite into low-Earth orbit.
Although the communication systems test was unsuccessful due to a failure in antenna deployment, the payload data was stored on-board and recovered after the RockSat-X payload canister re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and was retrieved from the Atlantic Ocean 90 miles off shore. Using this data, it was determined that the payload subsystems were functioning properly during upper atmosphere operation and the main testing objective was achieved. Additional testing is in the works to prove the long range capability and reliability of the communications system.
NASA’s IV&V Program partnered with students from West Virginia University to integrate the OC-Flight-1 subsystems with other scientific experiments intended to be performed in the upper atmosphere as part of the overall competition. Other participating universities included University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Puerto Rico at San Juan, University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins University, West Virginia University, University of Minnesota, and Northwest Nazarene University. Even though the team was not alone in encountering mishaps during the integration and operations phase, every team involved with the competition came out a winner. The hand-on practical knowledge gained from participating in RockSat is highly valuable and will be an experience that’s never forgotten.
To see the re-entry of OC-Flight-1’s picosat, watch the video below.
NASA’s Independent Verification & Validation Program