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.
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.
Four small, shoebox-sized satellites are being prepared to launch to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) 49 mission. The small satellites, called CubeSats, will study a range of topics – from satellite communication methods to space weather to testing technology for robotic assembly of large telescopes.
The CubeSats will hitch a ride on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft set to deliver additional science, crew supplies, and hardware to the station during the company’s 26th commercial resupply services mission for NASA. Launch is targeted at 4:19 p.m. EST from Launch Complex 39A at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The first U.S. high school to send a CubeSat to space back in 2013, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology’s Research and Education Vehicle for Evaluating Radio Broadcasts satellite aims to study the use of iridium as a primary radio communication method. Additionally, the satellite will demonstrate using a passive magnet onboard and the Earth’s magnetic field for stabilization rather than using an attitude determination and control system for pointing accuracy and stabilization for iridium. What makes this satellite even more notable is that it was a system’s engineering project. The students selected space-grade parts, wired the electronics for the satellite, wrote the drivers to control the different systems, and coded the flight software.
“What’s special about TJREVERB isn’t necessarily the mission, it’s what we did. These kids literally built a satellite the way the industry would build a satellite; we selected parts from vendors and got those parts to work together,” said Kristen Kucko, robotics lab director and the school’s space faculty advisor. “This is an engineering feat.”
The University of Michigan’s Measurement of Actuator Response In Orbit (MARIO) is a technology demonstration that will show how test structures made of a piezoelectric material – a type of material that bends when electricity is applied and can also generate electricity when bent – perform in low-Earth orbit. This will allow the spacecraft to bend or move without any rotating parts and could one day be used to point and adjust telescope mirrors more accurately.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Plasma Enhancement in The Ionosphere-Thermosphere Satellite (petitSat) will study density irregularities in the Earth’s ionosphere – a tiny fraction of the atmosphere made of plasma, or ionized gas. During long distance radio communication, the ionosphere reflects radio waves back to Earth. Disturbances in the upper atmosphere can change the shape of the ionosphere, creating a funhouse mirror effect and distorting these radio waves. The mission will use two instruments to measure the structure and motion of plasma in the ionosphere resulting from these changes in the upper atmosphere to better understand how these affect satellite communications.
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center’s Scintillation Prediction Observations Research Task (SPORT) will also look to the ionosphere to study space weather. The joint mission between the U.S. and Brazil will examine the formation of plasma bubbles, which sometimes scatter radio signals. Understanding how these bubbles are formed and how their evolution impacts communication signals can help scientists improve the reliability of communication and navigation systems.
“The more we learn about space weather – and how to predict it – the better we can protect our astronauts, spacecraft, and technology,” said Shelia Nash-Stevenson, SPORT project manager.
All of these were selected through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI), which provides 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. Once the CubeSat selections are made, NASA’s Launch Services Program works to pair them with a launch that is best suited to carry them as auxiliary payloads, taking into account the planned orbit and any constraints the CubeSat missions may have.
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.
After a nominal first stage flight, the upper stage of the rocket shut down early and failed to deliver the TROPICS CubeSats to orbit.
NASA’s Launch Services Program, who managed the launch service for the mission, continues to work with emerging launch providers to deliver low-cost science missions into orbit through contracts that align with commercial practices, using less NASA oversight to achieve lower launch costs.
Small satellites and Class D payloads tolerate relatively high risk and serve as an ideal platform for technical and architecture innovation, contributing to NASA’s science research and technology development. The program offers opportunity for industry developing new launch capabilities.
Two TROPICS CubeSats have lifted off atop an Astra Rocket 3 from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida today, June 12, 2022. Launch occurred at approximately 1:43 p.m. EDT.
Astra has completed final liquid oxygen conditioning and resumed countdown for the launch of its Rocket 3, carrying two of NASA’s TROPICS CubeSats. Liftoff currently is scheduled for today at 1:43 p.m. EDT.
Each TROPICS satellite is identical – a 3U CubeSat about the size of a loaf of bread and weighing about 12 lbs.
The TROPICS CubeSat payload is a spinning microwave radiometer with highly integrated, compact microwave receiver electronics.
TROPICS satellite measures microwave frequencies ranging from about 90 to 205 gigahertz, which can monitor the atmospheric emissions made by water vapor, oxygen, and clouds in the atmosphere.
TROPICS target altitude is 550 kilometers, and pairs of CubeSats will have three slightly different low-Earth orbits, all at an angle about 30 degrees above the equator.
The TROPICS Pathfinder satellite, a proof-of-concept CubeSat that launched in June of 2021, has captured images of several tropical cyclones, such as Hurricane Ida over the United States, Cyclone Batsirai over Madagascar, and Super Typhoon Mindulle over eastern Japan. The pathfinder satellite has also provided the TROPICS research team an opportunity to fine tune the satellites’ software and operational procedures before the constellation launches. In addition, the pathfinder has already been calibrated and will be able to serve as a calibration reference for the rest of the TROPICS constellation satellites. The TROPICS pathfinder helps the TROPICS CubeSats start producing useful data quickly.
Astra’s Rocket 3 is an expendable, vertically-launched two stage rocket that uses liquid oxygen and kerosene as propellants. It has an overall length of 43 feet and is 52 inches in diameter. Astra designed it to fit inside a standard shipping container. Rocket 3 has five engines on its first stage, and one engine on its second stage.
TROPICS is an Earth venture instrument mission – science-driven, competitively selected, low-cost missions that provide opportunity for investment in innovative Earth science to enhance our capability to better understand the current state of the Earth system and to enable continual improvement in the prediction of future changes.
The TROPICS team is led by Principal Investigator Dr. William Blackwell at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington and includes researchers from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and several universities and commercial partners.
NASA’s Launch Services Program at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida manages the launch service.