CubeSats Touching New Heights in Space Research

By Steven Siceloff,
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida

Part of the scientific cargo packed inside an Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft recently launched to the International Space Station is a trio of tiny spacecraft that soon will fly on their own in orbit to look at different aspects of space-based science.

With one examining Earth’s cloud layer, another looking at the cosmic background radiation from the birth of the universe and one evaluating battery storage capacities in space, the three satellites make up NASA’s ELaNa XVII mission, short for Educational Launch of Nanosatellites. The CubeSat Launch Initiative offers launch opportunities for CubeSats proposed and built by teams of engineers and researchers from U.S. educational institutions, non-profits and NASA centers. NASA evaluates each proposal, selects some to fly and then schedules them for a trip into space on an ELaNa mission.

Built to operate on their own and communicate with Earth despite being only a few inches across, the CubeSats are the latest examples from a scientific movement that has seen satellites shrink dramatically to conduct research for far less money while still returning high-quality results.

“The community and industry is growing by leaps and bounds,” said NASA’s Scott Higginbotham, mission manager for ELaNa XVII. “It is amazing what you can do with in a small package at a relatively low price and folks are truly embracing the concept.”

The three ELaNa XVII satellites are:
IceCube – The mission is to demonstrate the technology of a submillimeter-wave radiometer for future cloud ice sensing. This technology will enable cloud ice measurements to be taken in the intermediate altitudes (5 km – 15 km), where no measurements currently exist. It will perform first-of-a-kind measurements of ice particles embedded within clouds. These measurements will advance atmospheric monitoring technology and also fill in critical gaps in understanding how cloud ice affects the weather and how cloud formations process atmospheric radiation.

CXBN-2 – Short for Cosmic X-Ray Background NanoSat-2, the mission will increase the precision of measurements of the Cosmic X-Ray Background in order to constrain models that attempt to explain the relative contribution of proposed sources lending insight into the underlying physics of the early universe. The mission addresses a fundamental science question that is central to our understanding of the structure, origin, and evolution of the universe, by potentially lending insight into high-energy background radiation and the evolution of galaxies.

CSUNSat1 – Short for California State University Northridge Sat1, the primary mission of CSUNSat1 is to test an innovative low-temperature-capable energy storage system in space. The success of this energy storage system will enable future missions, especially those in deep space, to do more science while requiring less energy, mass and volume.

The three satellites flew into orbit inside a small canister tailored to the needs of CubeSats. Astronauts on the station will pull the canister out of the Cygnus and position it at the airlock of the Japanese Experiment Module. Once moved to the outside of the station, the small robotic arm on the Japanese module will point the canister out into space and each spacecraft will be pushed out into its own separate flight path to conduct its mission.

Part of lining up CubeSat missions is evaluating which ones are ready to go when the main payload is ready. Mission planners also work to get as many CubeSats into space with each launch as they can, Higginbotham said.

“We try to match the readiness date and orbital parameter desires of our CubeSats with the vehicles going to those orbits,” Higginbotham said. “We are also always looking for efficient ways to effectively ‘bundle CubeSats together because we often get a volume discount.”

Launch companies are making more room on their launchers for these tiny spacecraft as the interest in them grows. Some companies, such as those contracted under NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services, are building launch vehicles solely for CubeSats and small spacecraft. Those launchers can be sent to many different orbits and are designed to carry dozens of CubeSats into space at a time.

Right now, Higginbotham and his NASA teams are processing eight more ELaNa missions that are in different stages of preparation for their own launches.

“There’s never a dull moment around here,” Higginbotham said.

Volunteers Clean Kennedy Space Center’s Beach

About 50 participants led by NASA Kennedy Space Center's Employee Resource Groups picked up about 20 bags of trash and other large debris along the center's shoreline before turtle-nesting season as a community service. Sea turtle-nesting season begins in about one month. Unlike what might be found along a public beach, all of the debris that litters Kennedy’s restricted beaches washes ashore after being discarded at sea. Of the 72 miles of beach that form the eastern boundary of Brevard County, Florida, about six of those miles line Kennedy.
About 50 participants led by NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Employee Resource Groups picked up about 20 bags of trash and other large debris along the center’s shoreline before turtle-nesting season as a community service. Sea turtle-nesting season begins in about one month. Unlike what might be found along a public beach, all of the debris that litters Kennedy’s restricted beaches washes ashore after being discarded at sea. Of the 72 miles of beach that form the eastern boundary of Brevard County, Florida, about six of those miles line Kennedy.
Photo credit: Bill White

About 50 employees picked up 20 bags of trash and large debris along the shoreline of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center during a beach cleanup in preparation of the upcoming sea turtle-nesting season.

Led by the center’s Employee Resource Groups, the participants met at the Beach House, worked about an hour and covered approximately two miles in their efforts. Of the 72 miles of beach that form the eastern boundary of Brevard County, about six of those miles line Kennedy.

Unlike what might be found along a public beach, all of the debris that litters Kennedy’s restricted beaches washes ashore after being discarded at sea. So before the group started, Kennedy’s Hazardous Materials team swept the beach to take care of any dangerous/suspicious items. They also stayed with the group through the entire cleanup on ATVs and responded quickly to potentially dangerous items the group found.

Along with cleaning the beach, the group’s team-building effort included attracting a diverse group of Kennedy workers to come together and make a positive impact on Kennedy. With sea turtle-nesting season beginning in about a month, the group deemed the timing ideal. The beach looked completely transformed after the cleanup, said some of those taking part in the effort.

With Kennedy’s shoreline being part of the top nesting area in the Western Hemisphere for loggerhead sea turtles, wildlife agencies consider it important to remove trash and debris along the coast whenever possible.

“We’re hoping those sea turtles can have a safer nesting season with the newly clean beach,” said Pri Thakrar, an engineer at Kennedy. “It was a beautiful day and we got a lot of positive feedback from the participants.”

Thakrar, along with engineer and co-organizer Megan Yohpe, hope to make this a regular event.

20 Years Ago: Cassini Arrives at Kennedy for Launch

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Before heading to Saturn to conduct unprecedented science in the orbit of the gas giant, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made a comparatively short jaunt from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida inside an Air Force C-17 transport aircraft. April 1997 saw the arrival of Cassini and its move to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility for assembly and prelaunch processing. After 20 years in space and delivering spectacular images, the massive spacecraft is beginning its final chapter. Engineers at Kennedy took a look back to how their contributions to the mission began: https://go.nasa.gov/2ocAe0g

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Kennedy ‘Swarmed’ as Students Develop Computer Code to Support Exploration

Swarmathon 2017

Students from colleges and universities from across the nation recently participated in a robotic programming competition at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Their research may lead to technology which will help astronauts find needed resources when exploring the moon or Mars.

In the spaceport’s second annual Swarmathon competition, aspiring engineers from 20 teams representing 22 minority serving universities and community colleges were invited to develop software code to operate innovative robots called “Swarmies.” The event took place April 18-20, 2017, at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

In her welcoming remarks, Kennedy’s deputy center director, Janet Petro, pointed out to the students that their endeavors to develop robotic software code are more than an academic exercise.

“All of the work that you have done – designing, coding, testing – will soon be put to the ultimate test,” she said. “You should be extremely proud of your accomplishments. You have shown tenacity, problem-solving, teamwork and innovation – all qualities that NASA highly values.”

A team from Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) in Albuquerque, New Mexico won this year’s Swarmathon capturing a $5,000 cash prize.

The small, four-wheeled Swarmie robots were designed through a collaboration between Kennedy’s Swamp Works laboratory and the University of New Mexico. It is a technology that could revolutionize space exploration by more effectively and efficiently locating hidden resources while astronauts explore distant destinations.

Computer scientists are developing Swarmies to focus not so much on the hardware, but the software. The Swarmathon is designed to help students improve their skills in robotics and computer science, as well as integrating software with hardware. What makes these robots noteworthy is the coding each carries in its silicon brain that makes them search for water, minerals and elements that could be refined into useful resources such as building materials or rocket fuel.

NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) selected the University of New Mexico to manage the Swarmathon challenge in a joint effort with the agency. Through the MUREP program, NASA’s goal is to increase the number of NASA-focused science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, experiences that engage underrepresented groups in active education.

Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Orbital ATK CRS-7 Mission Begins

With blue sky for a background, the Orbital ATK Cygnus pressurized cargo module is carried atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Orbital ATK's seventh commercial resupply services mission, CRS-7, will deliver 7,600 pounds of supplies, equipment and scientific research materials to the International Space Station. Liftoff occurred April 18 at 11:11 a.m. EDT.
With blue sky for a background, the Orbital ATK Cygnus pressurized cargo module is carried atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Orbital ATK’s seventh commercial resupply services mission, CRS-7, will deliver 7,600 pounds of supplies, equipment and scientific research materials to the International Space Station. Liftoff occurred April 18 at 11:11 a.m. EDT. Photo credit: NASA/Tony Gray and Sandra Joseph

Orbital ATK’s seventh cargo delivery flight to the station launched at 11:11 a.m. EDT Tuesday on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This is the fourth flight of an enhanced Cygnus spacecraft, and the third using the Atlas V launch system.

The on-time launch marked the conclusion of a smooth countdown and the beginning of a three-day pursuit of the International Space Station, where resident crew members await the arrival of the Cygnus spacecraft and its 7,626 pounds of scientific research materials, crew supplies and station equipment. Cygnus is due to arrive at the station early Saturday morning, April 22.

For further updates on the Orbital ATK CRS-7 mission, visit https://www.nasa.gov/orbital.

Review Gives CRS-7 Team ‘Go’ For Tuesday Launch

United Launch Alliance and Orbital ATK’s Launch Readiness Review for the Atlas V rocket with the Cygnus cargo resupply module was held April 15 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Launch managers from ULA, Orbital ATK and NASA determined all is ready for a targeted launch to the International Space Station on Tuesday, April 18. The liftoff from Space Launch Complex 41 is scheduled for 11:11 a.m. EDT and there is a 30-minute launch opportunity available.

NASA TV launch coverage will begin at 10 a.m. EDT on air and streaming at www.nasa.gov/ntv. Ten minutes prior to liftoff, NASA TV’s YouTube channel will debut full, 360 coverage of the launch at http://youtube.com/nasatelevision

Learn more about the 360 video coverage at https://go.nasa.gov/2ove1Yw

Engineers Tickled Pink to Help Kennedy Robotics Team

The robotics group known as the "Pink Team."
Comprised of students from Cocoa Beach, Rockledge, Viera and Space Coast high schools, the robotics group known as the “Pink Team,” its mentors and support personnel celebrated a successful season near the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on April 5. The Pink Team fared well in the two regionals it competed in this year in West Palm Beach, Florida, and the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
Photo credit: Charles Babir

A robotics team that did not exist six months ago stormed back into competition this spring after a new group of engineering mentors at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida opted to work with high school students to build intricate machines capable of performing by remote control some of the same functions NASA asks its own robots to perform.

Called the “Pink Team,” the Kennedy-sponsored group competes in the FIRST events, short for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” Two of the three team mentors retired last year leaving the group devoid of the mentorship necessary to compete.

So the Kennedy Engineering Directorate stepped up with 10 or so mentors eager to help.

The team was led by engineers Greg Clements and Andrew Bradley. Those involved celebrated the successful season April 5 at a facility near the Shuttle Landing Facility.

“It took a lot of teamwork, skill, communication, and a whole lot of brain power to get where we are,” said Bradley, a control systems engineer at Kennedy and Pink Team mentor since its inception 20 years ago. “It was great to see our engineering group step up and help make this happen.”

The team kicked off the season in January. They had six weeks to prepare for a pair of regionals, the first in West Palm Beach, Florida, and the second at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. With teams from Google, Microsoft, General Motors and representatives from each of the space centers, the competition was extraordinary.

The Pink Team faired very well in both competitions.

“Despite this being a rebuilding season, we couldn’t have been more proud of our group of students,” Clements said. “And it looks like nearly everyone is coming back for next year, so we have high expectations.”

Comprised of students from Cocoa Beach, Rockledge, Viera and Space Coast high schools, Kennedy’s house robotics team chose the phoenix mascot as a sign of rising from the ashes, Clements said.

And of course, the phoenix was pink.

Flown Orion Crew Module Moves to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

The Orion EFT-1 crew module is moved into the IMAX Theater at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.
The Orion crew module from Exploration Flight Test 1, secured on its custom-made ground support equipment, is moved into the IMAX Theater at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Leif Heimbold

The Orion crew module that traveled into space beyond low-Earth orbit on Exploration Fight Test 1 (EFT-1) completed a different kind of trip this week at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Secured on a custom-made ground support equipment transporter, Orion was moved from the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building high bay to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, less than three miles down the road. The crew module will become part of the NASA Now exhibit inside the IMAX Theater at the visitor complex.

The Orion spacecraft launched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket Dec. 5, 2014, from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The spacecraft built for humans traveled 3,604 miles above Earth, and is the first U.S. spacecraft to go beyond low-Earth orbit in 42 years. The Orion crew module splashed down approximately 4.5 hours later in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles off the shore of California.

Space Agriculture Planted in History

A look at the Biomass Production Chamber at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center back in 1991.
A look at the Biomass Production Chamber at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center back in 1991. Photo credit: NASA

For more than 30 years, NASA’s Dr. Raymond Wheeler has studied growing plants for space. Earlier this year, Wheeler published a paper titled Agriculture for Space: People and Places Paving the Way. It is a historical narrative outlining agricultural research conducted for space spanning the past 70 years. Wheeler’s space farming research highlights novel technologies and findings that have been produced over the years, including the first use of LEDs to grow plants, as well as hydroponics and vertical gardening techniques. In Wheeler’s work, one also sees that space agriculture has contributed to, and benefited from terrestrial, controlled environment agriculture and will continue to do so into the future. To read more about Wheeler’s and other space farmers’ work, go to https://go.nasa.gov/2nPAlM9.

New Ground Launch Sequencer Software Demonstrated in Launch Control Center

NASA engineers and test directors gather in Firing Room 3 in the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, to watch a demonstration of the automated command and control software for the agency's Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft. In front, far right, is Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, Exploration Mission 1 launch director. Photo credit: NASA/Bill White
NASA engineers and test directors gather in Firing Room 3 in the Launch Control Center at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, to watch a demonstration of the automated command and control software for the agency’s Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft. In front, far right, is Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, Exploration Mission 1 launch director. Photo credit: NASA/Bill White

A demonstration of the automated command and control software for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft, recently took place in Firing Room 3 in the Launch Control Center at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The software, called the ground launch sequencer, will be responsible for nearly all of the launch commit criteria during the final phases of launch countdowns.

The Ground and Flight Application Software Team, or GFAST, demonstrated the software for Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, launch director for the first integrated flight of the SLS and Orion spacecraft. Also attending were representatives from the NASA Test Director’s Office.

The software is in the advanced stages of development. It includes nearly all of the core capabilities required to support the initial use during Ignition Over-Pressure / Sound Suppression and follow-on tests through launch of the agency’s SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft. The suppression stage ensures the water dampening system initiates in the final second of launch countdown. It also produces the pattern and volume needed to dampen the pressure waves and acoustic environment caused by the firing of the SLS core stage RS-25 engines and solid rocket motors.

“We were pleased to be able to demonstrate the continued evolution of the ground launch sequencer for members of the launch team, and look forward to its first use in operations support,” said Alex Pandelos, operations project engineer for Launch Integration in the Ground Systems development and Operations Program (GSDO).

The software was developed by GSDO’s Command, Control and Communications teams at the center. Development of the software will continue, with a goal of beginning verification and validation of the software in summer 2017.