Two small NASA-sponsored research satellites, or CubeSats, are preparing to launch on Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket as part of the agency’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) 39 mission. The rocket, attached to the underside of the company’s Cosmic Girl aircraft, will be air launched when the 747-aircraft reaches its specified altitude over the Pacific Ocean. Takeoff is currently scheduled for June 29, 2022, from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
Once LauncherOne is released from Cosmic Girl, the rocket’s NewtonThree first stage engine will ignite to start the launch sequence that will send the CubeSats into low-Earth orbit.
The two satellites comprising ELaNa 39 are NASA Langley Research Center’s GPX2 and the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Compact Total Irradiance Monitor-Flight Demonstration, or CTIM-FD. They were selected through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) – a NASA effort to provide U.S. educational institutions, informal educational institutions such as museums and science centers, nonprofits with an education/outreach component, and NASA centers with low-cost access to space.
Langley’s GPX2 will use commercial-off-the-shelf differential global positioning systems to demonstrate autonomous, close-proximity operations for small satellites in orbit, such as flying in formation or docking. If successful, this could help reduce costs and greatly simplify in-orbit operations.
CTIM-FD will spend one year in orbit, measuring total solar irradiance (TSI) – data that describes the amount of incident solar radiation that reaches the Earth from the Sun. These levels impact local weather conditions as well as global climate change. The flight demonstration will show whether small satellites are as effective at measuring TSI as the larger, space-based remote sensors in use currently.
The small satellites were selected through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, which provides low-cost access to space for U.S. educational institutions, NASA centers, and others to develop and demonstrate novel technologies in space and to inspire and grow the next generation of scientists, engineers, and technologists.
The CubeSats were developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; The Weiss School in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida; NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida; and the University of South Alabama in Mobile. The CubeSats will be deployed from the space station.
NASA has selected over 200 CubeSat missions from more than 100 unique organizations representing 42 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico through the CubeSat Launch Initiative since 2010. To date, 134 CubeSat missions have launched into space through ELaNa rideshare opportunities.