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.

ULA Atlas V Arrives for Next Orbital ATK Space Station Resupply Mission

OA-7 Atlas V Booster arrives at the Army Wharf, is offloaded and transfered to the ASOC.

NASA recently took another step in preparations for Orbital ATK’s seventh commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station. The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V booster arrived at the Army Outpost wharf at Port Canaveral, Florida, near the Kennedy Space Center.

The Atlas V rocket was assembled at the ULA plant in Decatur, Alabama, about 20 miles southwest of Huntsville. After completion, the Atlas V was shipped aboard the Mariner cargo ship down the Tennessee River and Tombigbee Waterway, a canal, through the Gulf of Mexico to Port Canaveral.

From the port, the booster was transported to the hangar at the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center, located south of Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The Atlas V will undergo final testing in that facility. When processing is complete, the Atlas V booster will be moved to the Vertical Integration Facility for stacking approximately .3 miles from SLC-41.

Scheduled for launch at approximately 10:56 p.m. on March 19, 2017, the Atlas V rocket will boost an Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo spacecraft loaded with thousands of pounds of supplies and equipment for the crew aboard the space station. Additionally, scientific experiments will be aboard for research by the crew on the station to improve life on Earth and drive progress toward future space flight.

Photo credit: United Launch Alliance


Final Work Platform Arrives for NASA’s Space Launch System

Work platform A north arrived at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 13.The final work platform for NASA’s Space Launch System arrived Dec. 13 at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The second half of the A-level platforms, A north, was transported to the center by heavy-lift truck from Tillett Heavy Hauling in Titusville, Florida, and delivered to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) staging area.

The platform will remain in the staging area for prep work before it is moved into the transfer aisle of the VAB. The first half of the A-level platforms, A south, arrived at the center Nov. 28. The south platform will be installed in High Bay 3 on Dec. 22. The north platform will be installed in late January 2017.

The A-level platforms are the topmost platforms for High Bay 3. The two halves will provide access to the Orion spacecraft’s Launch Abort System (LAS) for Orion Lifting Sling removal and installation of the closeout panels. Testing of the Launch Abort System Antenna also is performed on this level.

A total of 10 levels of new platforms, 20 platform halves altogether, will surround the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft and provide access for testing and processing. NASA is preparing for the launch of Orion atop the SLS rocket from Launch Pad 39B in 2018.

Photo credit: NASA/Cory Huston

CYGNSS Launches Aboard Pegasus XL Rocket

NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) mission launched Thursday, Dec. 15 at 8:37 a.m. EST aboard an Orbital ATK air-launched Pegasus XL launch vehicle. The rocket was dropped and launched from Orbital’s Stargazer L-1011 aircraft, which took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of central Florida.

CYGNSS Wednesday Launch Attempt Delayed

The CYGNSS launch planned for Wednesday, Dec. 14 is being delayed due to an issue with flight parameter data used by spacecraft software. The issue was discovered during routine testing Tuesday. The new flight parameter data have undergone verification testing on the engineering model, and will be uploaded to the spacecraft on Wednesday. The uploading of new flight data is a very routine procedure, and is expected correct the issue. The next launch attempt will be determined pending the results of ongoing tests.

Engineers Prep to Encapsulate GOES-R For Launch

Both halves of the fairing for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES-R) are being inspected and cleaned by United Launch Alliance (ULA) team members inside the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, Florida near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. GOES-R will be the first satellite in a series of next-generation NOAA GOES Satellites. The spacecraft is to launch aboard a ULA Atlas V rocket in November.The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES-R) is undergoing final launch preparations prior to fueling inside the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, Florida near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. GOES-R will be the first satellite in a series of next-generation NOAA GOES Satellites. The spacecraft is to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in November.Processing engineers are set to encapsulate the GOES-R weather satellite into its payload fairing at the Astrotech payload processing facility near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The work is being performed as teams from NASA, United Launch Alliance and NOAA progress toward a liftoff on Nov. 16 from Space Launch Complex 41 aboard an Atlas V rocket. Launch time is 4:42 p.m. EDT.

The spacecraft, folded into launch position, will be enclosed inside the two halves of the fairing before being taken to the launch pad and positioned atop the Atlas V. The fairing will protect the spacecraft during the climb through the lower atmosphere, then the two pieces will be jettisoned as the rocket pushes GOES-R toward its final orbit more than 22,000 miles above Earth. Once in orbit and operational, GOES-R will use its advanced instruments to help weather forecasters on Earth predict storms and atmospheric conditions and to track environmental changes. Photos credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

Kennedy Team Briefed on Juno Mission Progress

NASA's Juno spacecraft captured this view as it closed in on Jupiter's north pole, about two hours before closest approach on Aug. 27, 2016. Since its arrival in orbit around Jupiter nearly three months ago, the Juno spacecraft already is impressing scientists with its observations of the gas giant. Employees at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida were briefed Sept. 20 on the status and the scientific promise of a mission many audience members helped launch a little more than five years ago.

NASA's Juno planetary probe, enclosed in its payload fairing, launches atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.“Of course, what we’re really after is to learn about Jupiter — which is helping us to learn about ourselves,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator for Juno at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

Kennedy’s Launch Services Program led the successful launch of Juno aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. After some deep-space maneuvers in 2012 and an Earth flyby that provided a gravity assist in October 2013, Juno arrived at the largest planet in our solar system on July 4, 2016.

Jupiter was the first planet to form after the sun, Bolton explained. A better understanding of Jupiter’s makeup could help provide the “recipe” for a solar system.

“The stuff that Jupiter has more of than the sun — that’s what we are made of,” he explained.

Juno took 53 days to go around on the first orbit and it passed by Jupiter on Aug. 27 — this time for the first time with the science instruments on. The photo above was taken as Juno closed in on Jupiter’s north pole. Read more: Jupiter’s North Pole Unlike Anything Encountered in Solar System

After another 53 days, around Oct. 19, the spacecraft will perform its final burn to place Juno into a 14-day “science orbit” from which it will begin regularly mapping the gas giant.

Juno has come a long way since its departure from Earth.

“On Aug. 5, 2011, we launched from here. I’m so indebted to all of you, and everybody here at Kennedy who worked with you, because I realized when I got that close to it and was responsible for Juno just how difficult the launch was,” Bolton said.

“It is an immense amount of work and engineering challenge. What you do here is incredible.”

Juno will continue to orbit and study Jupiter until the spacecraft’s scheduled deorbit into the planet in February 2018.

Photo credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS (top), NASA/Tony Gray and Don Kight (right)

Launch Day at Kennedy for OSIRIS-REx

OSIRIS-REx rollout to the Pad 41 for the upcoming launch.

Everything remains on track today for the launch of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission at 7:05 p.m. EDT, the opening of a 2-hour window. The weather forecast continues to call for an 80 percent chance of acceptable conditions.

Bolted to the top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex 41, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will be sent on a course to rendezvous with an asteroid called Bennu. Once there in August 2018, the spacecraft will take unprecedented surveys of the asteroid and then reach out a mechanical arm to grab a pristine sample of it. Then the spacecraft will head back to Earth, releasing the sample inside a specialized, heat shield-equipped capsule that will parachute the sample safely to Earth where researchers will collect it for study. The mission will take seven years to complete. Our webcast on the launch and mission is below.

Analysis of the sample will reveal the earliest stages of the solar system’s evolution and the history of Bennu over the past 4.5 billion years.  Scientists expect Bennu may hold clues to the origin of the solar system and the source of the water and organic molecules that may have made their way to Earth.

For tonight though, all eyes are on the launch. Our continuous countdown coverage will begin at 5:30 p.m. EDT on the OSIRIS-REx blog. NASA TV’s coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. with an episode of NASA Edge, then will shift at 4:30 p.m. to live views of the Atlas V rocket and OSIRIS-REx spacecraft accompanied by countdown net audio. The launch broadcast will begin at 5:30 p.m. and continue through spacecraft separation, solar array deployment and positive communication with the spacecraft by NASA’s Deep Space Network. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

On the Pad at Space Launch Complex 41

OSIRIS-REx rollout to the Pad 41 for the upcoming launch.The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket made the trek from the Vertical Integration Facility to Space Launch Complex 41 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Wednesday. Atop the rocket, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is sealed in the protective payload fairing. Liftoff is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 8 at 7:05 p.m. EDT. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

If you’re in the central Florida area and wondering how to view the launch, check out this page for a list of popular launch viewing locations.

How Were OSIRIS-REx and Atlas V Prepped for Flight?

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will be boosted into orbit aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer. The U.S.’s first mission to sample an asteroid, OSIRIS-REx will travel to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu.

Learn how this pioneering spacecraft and the Atlas V were readied for flight: