NASA Satellites Launch Aboard Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne

Cornell University students work with the Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation (PAN), a CubeSat that is part of NASA's 29th ELaNa mission.
Cornell University students work with the Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation (PAN), a CubeSat that is part of NASA’s 29th ELaNa mission. Photo credit: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket detached from the company’s CosmicGirl aircraft at approximately 5:53 p.m. EST (2:53 p.m. PST) on Jan. 13, 2022,  launching NASA’s 29th Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) mission and the 13th CubeSat in the TechEdSat series. This launch, also known as STP-27VPB, lifted off at approximately 4:39 p.m. EST (1:39 p.m. PST) from Mojave Air and Space Port, California.

Cornell’s Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation (PAN), the 29th ELaNa mission, will launch two small research satellites known as CubeSats to low-Earth orbit to demonstrate autonomous rendezvous at a low cost. PAN is the first CubeSat mission to attempt docking between two CubeSats and will represent one of the most advanced autonomous CubeSat systems that has flown to date.

CubeSats are a class of research spacecraft called nanosatellites, built to standard units, or “U,”  of 4 inches cubed. Often included as secondary payloads, CubeSats can be 1U, 2U, 3U, or 6U in size, typically weighing less than 3 pounds per unit and designed to carry out unique tasks once deployed into low-Earth orbit.

The PAN CubeSats, each measuring approximately 8 inches x 12 inches, feature a cold gas propulsion system, reaction wheel-based attitude control, and GPS navigation. A few months after launch, the satellites will match each other’s orbits and rendezvous to demonstrate future capabilities for on-orbit assembly.

The nanosatellites will use carrier-differential GPS to autonomously conduct rendezvous and docking operations. This method allows position measurement accurate to within several centimeters. If successful, the technology demonstrated by PAN will reduce the mass and complexity associated with traditional rendezvous and docking systems.

PAN was selected through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) and assigned to this mission by the agency’s Launch Services Program (LSP) based at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. CSLI enables the launch of CubeSat projects designed, built, and operated by students, teachers, faculty, NASA centers, and nonprofit organizations. Managed by LSP, ELaNa missions provide a deployment opportunity or ride-share launches to space for the selected CubeSats.

The TechEdSat-13 team prepares the spacecraft for flight at Virgin Orbit’s payload processing facility in Long Beach, California. Photo credit: Virgin Orbit

TechEdSat-13, from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, is a 3U nanosatellite that carries a unique artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) module featuring the first orbital flight of a neuromorphic processor. This processor, the Intel Loihi, permits fast and efficient execution of AI/ML algorithms through a unique architecture that, in some ways, mimics the human brain.

In addition, there is a unique exo-atmospheric brake that will help rapidly de-orbit this and future nanosatellites. With this exo-brake technology, TechEdSat-13 will help address the accumulation and efficient disposal of orbital debris. This effort also helps to set the stage for autonomous navigation for nanosatellites to drop from orbit and reach their planned destination on Earth.

The TechEdSat flight series involves university interns and early career aerospace professionals. TechEdSat-13 was funded by various research groups within NASA, and the neuromorphic processor was provided by the Air Force Research Laboratory  Information Directorate.

ELaNa 38 CubeSats: Small Satellites Making a Big Impact

One of the solar panels being installed onto the GASPACS CubeSat during final assembly.
A student from Utah State University installs one of the solar panels onto the GASPACS CubeSat during final assembly. Photo credit: Jack Danos, Team Coordinator, Get Away Special Team, Utah State University

Launching aboard SpaceX’s 24th Commercial Resupply Services mission to the International Space Station, NASA’s 38th Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) mission strengthens the initiative’s aim of providing opportunities for small satellite payloads built by universities, high schools, NASA Centers, and non-profit organizations. Liftoff from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 21, at 5:06 a.m. EST.

The DAILI spacecraft in its stowed configuration and ready for installation into the NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer.
The 6U DAILI spacecraft is shown in its stowed configuration before installation into the NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer. Photo credit: Nancy Pastor, The Aerospace Corporation

The four small satellites, or CubeSats, that comprise the 38th ELaNa mission include designs from Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California; Utah State University in Logan, Utah; Georgia Tech Research Corporation in Atlanta, Georgia; and NASA’s Kennedy.

CubeSats are a class of research spacecraft called nanosatellites, built to standard dimensions – Units or “U” – of 4 inches cubed. Often included as secondary payloads, CubeSats can be 1U, 2U, 3U, or 6U in size, typically weighing less than 3 pounds per U and designed to carry out unique tasks once deployed into low-Earth orbit.

The DAILI spacecraft is shown in its mission configuration with the solar arrays deployed and the Sunshade open. Photo credit: Nancy Pastor, The Aerospace Corporation

The Daily Atmospheric and Ionospheric Limb Imager (DAILI), built by Aerospace Corporation, is a linear 6U CubeSat that images the edge of Earth’s atmosphere to determine daytime density of atmospheric oxygen. The region of atmosphere it will study – roughly an altitude of 87 to 180 miles – is difficult to measure and produces uncertain atmospheric models. This investigation could help improve models informing our understanding of dynamics in the upper atmosphere, which can affect satellites and space debris in low-Earth orbit, while improved understanding of how Earth’s atmosphere works could contribute to better forecasting of weather and other atmospheric events.

The Aerospace Corporation – a national nonprofit corporation that operates a federally funded research and development center – designed and developed DAILI based on the company’s Remote Atmospheric and Ionospheric Detection System experiment, which was operational on the space station from 2009 to 2010, enabled DAILI to be designed. The DAILI CubeSat project is led by principal investigator Dr. James Hecht.

The completed GASPACS CubeSat.
The GASPACS CubeSat was built by students from Utah State. Photo credit: Jack Danos, Team Coordinator, Get Away Special Team, Utah State University

An undergraduate team at Utah State University developed the Get Away Special Passive Attitude Control Satellite (GASPACS), a 1U CubeSat with a primary mission to deploy a meter-long inflatable boom in low-Earth orbit and transmit a clear photograph of the deployed boom to Earth. Inflatable structures are compact and lightweight and therefore could serve many useful purposes in space. On this mission, the inflatable boom also will passively stabilize the rotation of the satellite due to aerodynamic drag in orbit.

The GASPACS CubeSat was developed by the university’s Get Away Special Team – an undergraduate, extracurricular research team within the physics department that gives students the opportunity to learn real-world engineering skills by effectively contributing to aerospace research. The team’s principal investigator is Dr. Jan Sojka, head of the university’s physics department.

Vibration Testing of the PATCOOL CubeSat Prototype.
The PATCOOL CubeSat Prototype undergoes vibration testing. Photo credit: NASA

The Passive Thermal Coating Observatory Operating in Low-Earth Orbit (PATCOOL) satellite is a 3U CubeSat sponsored by NASA and developed by students at the University of Florida to investigate the feasibility of using a cryogenic selective surface coating as a more efficient way to passively cool components in space. The team hopes in-orbit testing will validate what ground tests have demonstrated – that this coating should provide a much higher reflectance of the Sun’s irradiant power than any existing coating while still providing far-infrared power emission.

The ADvanced Autonomous MUltiple Spacecraft (ADAMUS) Laboratory at the University of Florida (UF), with funding from NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP), developed the PATCOOL CubeSat, along with principal investigator, Brandon Marsell, branch chief for LSP’s Environments and Launch Approval, based at Kennedy.

The TARGIT satellite in its deployed state.
The TARGIT satellite is shown in its deployed state. Photo credit: W.C. Hobbs

The Tethering and Ranging mission of the Georgia Institute of Technology (TARGIT) is a 3U CubeSat that seeks to develop and test in orbit an imaging LiDAR system capable of fine detailed topographic mapping while also providing university students with hands-on education in space systems and applications. Additionally, the mission will demonstrate a series of experimental spacecraft technologies, including active tether and inflation systems, 3D-printed components, horizon sensors using low-resolution thermal imagers, and nanocarbon-based solar cells.

GAS team members Cooper Gowan, Andrew Nelson, and Carter Page showing the finished inflatable boom payload.
Utah State University’s GAS team members show the finished inflatable boom payload. Photo credit: Jack Danos, Team Coordinator, Get Away Special Team, Utah State University

Students from Georgia Tech’s School of Aerospace Engineering designed and developed the TARGIT CubeSat, under the tutelage of their professor and principal investigator, Dr. Brian C. Gunter.

The ELaNa 38 mission CubeSats were selected by NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) and assigned to the mission by LSP, based at Kennedy. CSLI provides launch opportunities for small satellite payloads built by universities, high schools, NASA Centers, and non-profit organizations.

To date, NASA has selected 220 CubeSat missions, 124 of which have been launched into space, with 37 more missions scheduled for launch within the next 12 months. The selected CubeSats represent participants from 42 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and 102 unique organizations.

Stay connected with these CubeSat missions on social media by following NASA’s Launch Services Program on Facebook and Twitter.

NASA’s IXPE Journeys to Explore the Universe

NASA's IXPE launch from Kennedy Space Center
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches with NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) spacecraft onboard from Launch Complex 39A, Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, at 1 a.m. EST, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

NASA’s Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission launched at 1 a.m. EST Thursday on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

A joint effort with the Italian Space Agency, the IXPE observatory is NASA’s first mission dedicated to measuring the polarization of X-rays from the most extreme and mysterious objects in the universe – supernova remnants, supermassive black holes, and dozens of other high-energy objects.

Click here to read the full feature.

Weather Outlook Great, IXPE Locked in for 1 a.m. EST Launch

The weather outlook for NASA’s Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) launch from Kennedy Space Center remains outstanding. Weather officials with Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s 45th Weather Squadron predict a greater than 90% chance of favorable conditions for liftoff of NASA’s first dedicated mission to measuring X-ray polarization.

Propellant load is underway, which eliminates IXPE’s 90-minute launch window.

“We have committed to this and we are committed to a T-zero at 1 a.m.,” said Mic Woltman of NASA Communications.

Fun Facts About NASA’s IXPE Mission

IXPE spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket
NASA’s IXPE is the second Launch Services Program mission to fly a previously flown Falcon 9 booster. Photo credit: SpaceX

Here are some fun facts you may not know about NASA’s Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission:

  • IXPE will study targets over a broad range of types of astronomical X-ray sources with emphasis on black holes and neutron stars.
  • The mission will accomplish, for the first time, high-sensitivity measurements of the polarization of X-rays coming from some of the most exciting types of astronomical objects – neutron stars and black holes.
  • The mission will accomplish, for the first time, imaging X-ray polarization measurements from extended objects such as exploded stars and jets attached to super-massive black holes.
  • IXPE is the first Launch Services Program (LSP) mission to launch from Kennedy’s Launch Complex 39A.
  • The mission involves the first use of Kennedy’s Launch Control Center Firing Room 4 for the launch of an LSP mission.
  • IXPE is the second LSP mission to fly a previously flown Falcon 9 booster.

Stay right here for continued blog coverage, or tune in to NASA Television, the NASA app, or the agency’s website, which started at 12:30 a.m. EST, for live broadcast coverage of IXPE launch day activities. Launch is set for 1 a.m. EST from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

NASA Begins Live Broadcast of IXPE Launch

NASA has ramped up its coverage of today’s Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) launch, as the live broadcast has now begun. Tune in to NASA Television, the NASA app, or the agency’s website, starting now for launch day commentary, interviews, and everything you need to know about the launch of today’s unique mission.

You can also stay right here for blog updates throughout the launch day milestones.

Live Broadcast of NASA’s IXPE Launch Starts Soon

NASA's IXPE mission logoTune in to NASA Television, the NASA app, or the agency’s website, starting in about 10 minutes (12:30 a.m. EST), for live broadcast coverage of NASA’s Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission.

Liftoff, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy’s Launch Complex 39A, is targeted for 1 a.m. EST. The Launch is managed by NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at Kennedy.

IXPE will study changes in the polarization of X-ray light through some of the universe’s most extreme sources, including black holes, dead stars known as pulsars, and more. The mission is NASA’s first dedicated to measuring X-ray polarization.

Click here to learn more about the IXPE mission.

Key Launch Day Milestones for NASA’s IXPE

NASA's IXPE spacecraft
Tune in to NASA Television, the NASA app, or the agency’s website, starting at 12:30 a.m. EST for a live broadcast of the IXPE launch. Photo credit: SpaceX

Here is a look at some of the key milestones for today’s IXPE launch:

Mission Timeline (all times approximate)
LAUNCH AND DRAGON DEPLOYMENT
Time                      Events
1 a.m. EST             Liftoff
T+153 sec              First stage main engine cutoff (MECO)
T+156 sec              First and second stages separate
T+164 sec              Second stage engine start 1 (SES-1)
T+220 sec              Fairing deploy
8.1 min                    Second stage engine cutoff 1 (SECO-1)
28.7 min                 Second stage engine start 2 (SES-2)
29.8 min                 Second stage engine cutoff 2 (SECO-2)
33.3 min                  Spacecraft separation
66.7 min                 Second stage deorbit burn

IXPE’s launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is now about 40 minutes away. Coverage of launch day activities will continue here on the blog. Also, tune in to NASA Television, the NASA app, or the agency’s website, starting at 12:30 a.m. EST for a live broadcast. Liftoff, from Kennedy’s Launch Complex 39A, is targeted for 1 a.m.

Weather Looking Great for NASA’s IXPE Launch

The weather outlook for today’s early morning launch of NASA’s Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) spacecraft from Kennedy Space Center is terrific. Weather officials with Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s 45th Weather Squadron predict a 90% chance of favorable conditions for liftoff, with the cumulus cloud rule serving as the primary weather concern.

A collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency, IXPE is NASA’s first mission dedicated to measuring X-ray polarization. Launch, which is managed by NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at Kennedy, is targeted for 1 a.m. EST from the Florida spaceport’s Launch Complex 39A.

Coverage of launch day activities will continue here on the blog throughout IXPE’s milestones. Also, tune in to NASA Television, the NASA app, or the agency’s website, starting at 12:30 a.m. EST for a live broadcast.

What is NASA’s IXPE Mission All About?

NASA's IXPE spacecraft
NASA’s IXPE spacecraft carries three state-of-the-art space telescopes with special polarization-sensitive detectors. Photo credit: SpaceX

NASA’s Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission sounds cool, and even has a catchy name. But what is IXPE’s goal and how did the project come about? Here is a more in-depth look at IXPE, NASA’s first satellite dedicated to measuring X-ray polarization.

IXPE is going to explore some of the most extreme and mysterious objects in the universe – including black holes and pulsars – and the X-rays they emit. It is the first mission that will map the polarization of many of these objects.

IXPE carries three state-of-the-art space telescopes with special polarization-sensitive detectors. Polarization is a property of light that holds clues to the environment from which the light originates. By providing the first-ever dedicated look at polarized X-rays, IXPE will help us discover the secrets of some of the most extreme cosmic objects of the universe: the remnants of supernova explosions, neutron stars and black holes in our galaxy, and super massive black holes at the centers of galaxies.

NASA selected IXPE as a Small Explorer mission in 2017. The IXPE project is a collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama manages the IXPE mission. Ball Aerospace, headquartered in Broomfield, Colorado, manages spacecraft operations with support from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the Explorers Program for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Stay right here for continuing blog coverage of Thursday’s 1 a.m. EST launch of IXPE from Space Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.