NASA Eyes New Lunar CubeSat Orbit, Propulsion Challenges Continue

NASA’s Lunar Flashlight CubeSat launched on Dec. 11, 2022, to demonstrate several new technologies with a stretch science goal of detecting surface ice at the Moon’s South Pole. Shortly into Lunar Flashlight’s journey, the mission operations team discovered three of its four thrusters were underperforming.

Among the steps taken to analyze the issue and find possible solutions, the mission performed tests to determine whether the one fully functional thruster could provide adequate thrust to guide the spacecraft into its planned orbit. To that end, team members at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and Georgia Tech devised a creative maneuvering technique using one thruster: The spacecraft was spun at a rate of 6 degrees per second, or one revolution per minute, around its directed axis. Then the thruster was fired while commanding the spacecraft to remain pointed in the right direction. There was potential after 20 days, these mini-trajectory correction maneuvers would guide Lunar Flashlight to its planned near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon.

The team successfully completed quite a few 10-minute sequences on the single thruster, but soon after, that thruster also experienced a rapid loss in performance, and it became clear that the thrust being delivered was not enough to make it to the planned orbit.

The NASA JPL and Georgia Tech team is developing a new plan to get to the Moon. Because achieving an optimal near-rectilinear halo orbit appears unlikely, the Lunar Flashlight team decided to attempt lunar flybys using any remaining thrust the propulsion system can deliver. This new attempt is designed to get the CubeSat into high Earth orbit, which includes periodic flybys of the lunar South Pole once a month to collect data. The team plans to begin maneuvers on Thursday, and, if successful, the expected first science pass will now be in June.

While Lunar Flashlight faces significant challenges in its goal of getting to the Moon, testing its new propulsion system in space fulfills one of the mission’s objectives and will support future technology development. The mission’s miniaturized propulsion system is a technology demonstration that has never been flown in space before. Technology demonstrations are high-risk, high-reward endeavors intended to push the frontiers of space technology. The lessons learned from these challenges will help to inform future missions that further advance this technology.

The rest of the CubeSat’s onboard systems are fully functional, and the mission recently successfully tested its four-laser reflectometer. This mini-instrument is the first of its kind and is designed and calibrated to seek out surface ice inside the permanently shadowed craters at the Moon’s South Pole.

Lunar Flashlight is funded by the Small Spacecraft Technology program in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

NASA Awards Phantom Launch Services Task Order for CSLI Mission

NASA logo

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.

Educational CubeSats Set to Launch to the Space Station

A group of high school students work on their CubeSat, TJREVERB.
A group of students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology work on their CubeSat, TJREVERB (Thomas Jefferson Research and Education Vehicle for Evaluating Radio Broadcasts). Photo credit: Thomas Jefferson High School

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.

Satellite Communications

An up-close view of the University of Michigan's Measurement of Actuator Response In Orbit (MARIO) CubeSat.
Seen here is an up-close view of the University of Michigan’s Measurement of Actuator Response In Orbit (MARIO) CubeSat. Photo credit: University of Michigan

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.”

Structure Testing

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.

Space Weather

An up-close view of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center's Scintillation Prediction Observations Research Task (SPORT) CubeSat.
Seen here is an up-close view of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center’s Scintillation Prediction Observations Research Task (SPORT) CubeSat. Photo credit: NASA

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.

For more information about NASA’s CSLI, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/heo/home/CubeSats_initiative

Two CubeSats Set to Launch on ELaNa 39 Mission

Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket is attached to the underside of the company's Cosmic Girl aircraft.
Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket is attached to the underside of the company’s Cosmic Girl – a Boeing 747-400 carrier aircraft – at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. LauncherOne is carrying two small satellites, or CubeSats, for NASA’s ELaNa 39 mission. Photo credit: Virgin Orbit

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.

An up-close view of Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket.
Seen here is an up-close view of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket attached to the underside of the company’s Cosmic Girl aircraft at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Photo credit: Virgin Orbit

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.

For more information about NASA’s CSLI, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/heo/home/CubeSats_initiative

TROPICS Mission Update

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.

 

Liftoff!

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.

New T-0 Time Established for Today’s TROPICS Launch

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.

 

Launch Countdown Paused

Astra has paused the countdown of the launch of its Rocket 3, carrying two of NASA’s TROPICS CubeSats, to complete final liquid oxygen conditioning on the vehicle. Upon completion, the team will set a new launch time for TROPICS-1.

Mission Facts About TROPICS

TROP:ICS constellation of CubeSats
Three pairs of satellites comprise the TROPICS constellation and will work in concert to provide microwave observations of storms on Earth, measuring precipitation, temperature, and humidity of a storm as often as every 50 minutes. Image Credit: NASA

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.

Mission Timeline for Today’s TROPICS Launch

Astra Rocket 3 for first TROPICS launch
Astra’s Rocket 3 sits at Space Launch Complex 46 on June 1, 2022, in preparation for the June 12 launch of the first two of six CubeSats that make up NASA’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) mission. The launch window opens at noon EDT. Photo Credit: Astra

NASA’s TROPICS CubeSats mission is scheduled to launch today, June 12, on an Astra Rocket 3 from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. A two-hour window opens at noon EDT.

 Here’s a look at some of today’s upcoming milestones. All times are approximate:

COUNTDOWN

Min/Sec      Event

+0s               Lift-off

+6s               Begin Pitch Over

+1min 10s     Max-Q

+3min 00s     Main Engine Cutoff (MECO)

+3min 05s     Fairing separation

+3min 10s     Stage separation

+3min 15s     Upper stage ignition

+8min 30s     Second Engine Cutoff (SECO)

+8min 40s     Payload Deployment