NASA has awarded Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, California, one task order to launch two CubeSat Launch Initiative missions as part of the agency’s Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) launch services contract.
The CubeSats are targeted to launch no earlier than 2025 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. NASA will specify payloads closer to launch.
Building on NASA’s previous procurement efforts to foster development of a growing U.S. commercial launch market, VADR provides Federal Aviation Administration-licensed commercial launch services for payloads that can tolerate higher risk. By using a lower level of mission assurance, and commercial best practices for launching rockets, these highly flexible contracts help broaden access to space through lower launch costs.
SpaceX is one of 13 companies NASA selected for VADR contracts in 2022. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, manages the VADR contracts.
A NASA constellation of four storm tracking CubeSats are getting a new launch location as they prepare to study tropical cyclones beginning in the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season. NASA’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of SmallSats (TROPICS) will observe the atmosphere to increase our understanding of hurricanes, typhoons, and other intense weather.
Rocket Lab has announced the mission now will be sent into orbit on two Electron rockets – each carrying two TROPICS CubeSats – from Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, New Zealand in May to maintain the target launch window in time for this year’s hurricane season.
Each launch, traveling to separate orbital planes, will place a pair of the small satellites in orbit to increase the frequency in which tropical cyclones are measured from space. The TROPICS constellation enables researchers to monitor the evolution of tropical cyclones with a frequency of about once per hour as compared to currently only once every 6 hours. Each TROPICS satellite is an identical 3U (1U, or unit = 10cm x 10cm x 10cm) CubeSat that is about the size of a loaf of bread and weighs about 12 pounds.
The TROPICS team is led by Dr. William Blackwell at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts, and includes researchers from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and several universities and commercial partners. NASA awarded the launch services to Rocket Lab in November 2022, as part of the agency’s Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) launch services contract.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on April 4 to provide the latest target launch date information.
NASA is announcing two small CubeSats missions to launch on a commercial dedicated rideshare flight as part of the agency’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) initiative, which helps advance scientific and human exploration, as well as reduce the cost of new space missions, and expand access to space.
The CubeSat missions, which will study parts of Earth’s atmosphere and its radiation belt dynamics, are targeted for launch no earlier than April 2023 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
The Colorado Inner Radiation Belt Experiment (CIRBE) and Low-Latitude Ionosphere/Thermosphere Enhancements in Density (LLITED) are ELaNa missions 47 and 40, respectively.
CIRBE is a 3U CubeSat (1U, or unit = 10cm x 10cm x 10cm) from the University of Colorado Boulder, designed to provide state-of-the-art measurements within Earth’s radiation belt in a highly inclined low-Earth orbit. CIRBE aims for a better understanding of radiation belt dynamics, consequently improving the forecast capability of the energetic particles known to pose a threat to orbiting satellites as well as astronauts during spacewalks.
“Despite being the first scientific discovery of the space age, there are still many unsolved puzzles regarding the dynamics of these energetic particles,” said Dr. Xinlin Li, CIRBE principal investigator and professor at the university’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.
CIRBE’s sole instrument, Relativistic Electron Proton Telescope integrated little experiment-2 (REPTile-2), is an advanced version of an instrument previously in space from 2012 to 2014. The original REPTile could detect three energy channels, whereas REPTile-2 can distinguish 50 distinct channels, providing far greater measurement of elusive high energy particles with potential to damage satellites and penetrate spacesuits. REPTile-2 will measure the energies of incident electrons and protons, with its data downlinked to the ground via S-band radio. At mission’s end, the spacecraft’s orbit will begin degrading, eventually re-entering the atmosphere and burning up.
NASA’s LLITED consists of two 1.5U CubeSats developed by The Aerospace Corporation, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, and the University of New Hampshire (UNH). LLITED will study two late-day features of Earth’s atmosphere between 217 to 310 miles, with the aim of gaining a greater understanding of the interactions between the neutral and electrically charged parts of the atmosphere, consequently improving upper-atmosphere modeling capabilities and predictions for orbital proximity and re-entry.
“For the first time, we will be able to make simultaneous and co-located measurements of two phenomena in lower thermosphere/ionosphere – Equatorial Ionization Anomaly (EIA) and Equatorial Temperature Wind Anomaly (ETWA) – from a CubeSat platform,” said Dr. Rebecca Bishop, principal investigator for LLITED. “The two LLITED CubeSats will be able to observe changes in time and space of the two features.”
Both LLITED CubeSats carry three science instruments – a GPS radio-occultation sensor provided by Aerospace, an ionization gauge from UNH, and a planar ion probe provided by Embry-Riddle. Working together, the instruments will show how these atmospheric regions of enhanced density form, evolve, and then interact with each other after sunset.
“Because CubeSats can weigh 100 times less than larger satellites, missions such as LLITED demonstrate the potential of these small and cost-effective spacecraft to perform cutting-edge, comprehensive science experiments that previously were not feasible within traditional program resources,” said Bishop.
NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) supporting the agency’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida provides launch opportunities for small satellite payloads built by U.S. universities, high schools, NASA Centers, and non-profit organizations. To date, NASA has selected more than 225 CubeSat missions, representing participants from 42 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and over 115 unique organizations.
On NASA’s next Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) mission, a pair of small satellites, called CubeSats, will hitch a ride on SpaceX’s 27th commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station for NASA.
The ELaNa 50 complement of CubeSats will launch aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft this March, from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, along with additional supplies, equipment, and science investigations to be delivered to the crew aboard the station.
The university-built CubeSats are going to space as part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI). Once deployed, the CubeSats will demonstrate technologies to conduct atmospheric experiments and reduce space debris, as well as provide people on Earth the opportunity for an immediate and powerful connection with an object in space.
First Launch for The Natural State
The CSLI program will launch its first CubeSat from Arkansas. Developed at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, ARKSAT-1, is a CubeSat measuring 1U, or unit, (about 4 inches cubed). It will illuminate an LED from orbit and use a ground spectrometer to track and perform atmospheric measurements.
“It might be the first time this instrument technology is purposefully designed to be done with a CubeSat,” said Adam Huang, principal investigator. “It could be developed into future satellite-based systems using cooperative formations of CubeSats.”
ARKSAT-1’s secondary objective sets out to demonstrate a way to help alleviate the problem of space debris with a lightweight Solid State Inflatable Balloon (SSIB) that can be used to deorbit small satellites after a mission ends. When the balloon on ARKSAT-1 inflates, it will greatly increase the ARKSAT-1’s aerodynamic drag, thereby helping the satellite re-enter and disintegrate safely in Earth’s atmosphere. If successful, the SSIB technology could help reduce the amount of time a small satellite remains “space junk” in low-Earth orbit after its mission has ended.
Helping Others See the Light
LightCube, a 1U CubeSat developed by Arizona State University, Tempe, in collaboration with Vega Space Systems and Mexico’s CETYS Universidad, features a flash bulb that can be controlled remotely by amateur radio operators on Earth who will be able to activate the satellite to produce a brief flash visible from the ground.
“LightCube provides potential users worldwide with the opportunity to telecommand a spacecraft and observe a tangible and immediate response in the night sky,” said Jaime Sanchez de la Vega, principal investigator. “The team hopes that this process inspires users to learn about space, satellites, and related concepts.”
The flash will appear at a brightness similar to the International Space Station, and several commonly available smartphone and computer apps will show when LightCube is overhead and where to look in the sky to see its flash.
Considering the observational environment, the LightCube team conducted an in-depth assessment to confirm that the brief flashes generated will not have a significant impact on astronomy.
In selecting the CubeSats for ELaNa 50, CSLI continues furthering its goal of providing U.S. educational institutions, nonprofits with an education/outreach component, informal educational institutions (museums and science centers), and NASA centers with access to space at a low cost. Through CSLI, NASA’s Launch Services Program pairs selected CubeSats with launches best suited for each CubeSat’s mission and ready date, taking into consideration the planned orbit and any special constraints the CubeSat’s mission may have.
NASA has awarded Phantom Space Corp. four task orders to launch four CubeSat Launch Initiative missions as part of the agency’s Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) launch services contract. The CubeSats will launch no earlier than 2024 on Phantom’s Daytona rocket.
Building on NASA’s previous procurement efforts to foster development of new launch vehicles for NASA payloads, VADR provides Federal Aviation Administration-licensed commercial launch services for payloads that can tolerate higher risk. By using a lower level of mission assurance, and commercial best practices for launching rockets, these highly flexible contracts help broaden access to space through lower launch costs.
Phantom is one of 13 companies NASA selected for VADR contracts in 2022. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, manages the VADR contracts.
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.
Weather officials with Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s 45th Weather Squadron predict a 40% chance of favorable weather conditions at noon, the start of today’s launch window, with the forecast dropping to 10 percent favorable later in the afternoon.
The primary weather concern at the start of the launch window is a Cumulus Cloud Rule violation. Later in the launch window, concerns include Surface Electric Fields and Lightning rules.
TROPICS mission aims to improve observations of tropical cyclones. Six TROPICS satellites will work in concert to provide microwave observations of a storm’s precipitation, temperature, and humidity as often as every 50 minutes.
Launch day has arrived for NASA’s commercial partner Astra. A pair of small satellites wait atop Astra’s Rocket 3 for liftoff from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. This mission will send two-shoebox sized CubeSats to low-Earth orbit. A two-hour launch window opens at noon EDT.
This is the first of three planned launches for NASA’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) mission. Together the three launches will attempt to place six satellites in three different orbital planes to study the formation and development of tropical cyclones, making observations more often than what is possible with current weather satellites. The six TROPICS satellites will join the TROPICS Pathfinder satellite, which is already in orbit.
The six TROPICS satellites will maximize their time over the part of the Earth where tropical cyclones form and will work in concert to improve observations of tropical cyclones. The spread of the satellites means that a satellite should pass over any spot in an area stretching from the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States to the southern coast of Australia about once an hour. TROPICS will provide data on temperature, precipitation, water vapor, and cloud ice by measuring microwave frequencies, providing insight into storm formation and intensification. This new data, coupled with information collected from other weather satellites, will increase understanding of tropical cyclones and improve forecasting models.
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