December 3, 2018 – Two miniature satellites designed and built at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) were part of a record-breaking launch today on Spaceflight’s SSO-A: SmallSat Express mission, the largest single rideshare mission from a U.S.-based launch vehicle to date. In all, 64 satellites were placed in sun-synchronous low Earth orbit via a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
The launch manifest included 15 MicroSats and 49 CubeSats from government and commercial entities including universities, startups, and a middle school. To accommodate the large number of payloads, Spaceflight built an integrated payload stack that was nearly 20 feet tall. Once the launch vehicle reached orbit, the upper and lower free flyers separated from the vehicle. The free flyers then successfully deployed all spacecraft, dispensing one payload every five minutes over five hours.
“This was an incredibly complex mission, and I’m extremely proud of what our talented team at Spaceflight has achieved,” said Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight. “SSO-A is a major milestone for Spaceflight and the industry. We’ve always been committed to making space more accessible through rideshare. This mission enabled 34 organizations from 17 different countries to place spacecraft on orbit. It’s also special because it was completely dedicated to smallsats.”
The payloads vary from technology demonstrations and imaging satellites to educational research endeavors.
Compact Spectral Irradiance Monitor (CSIM)
The first of the LASP payloads is the CSIM CubeSat. It will be measuring the wavelengths of the sun from the near-ultraviolet to the near infrared – a wavelength range encompassing 96% of the total output of the sun. The 6U CubeSat will measure solar spectral irradiance (SSI) to understand how solar variability impacts the Earth’s climate and to validate climate model sensitivities.
An important goal of CSIM is testing how effectively a CubeSat can make the measurements that are normally made by much bigger and more expensive satellite. In the past, these missions have been done with much bigger satellites that are on orbit for 15 years or more – but they’re expensive and the instruments are generally only designed for five years of use. CSIM creates a terrific test ground because the data it sends back will be compared to data from a larger satellite that launched last December, with the performance measured directly against instruments making the same measurements. Both instruments were calibrated at the same facility, so the fidelity between the two should be high.
“CSIM is the first generation of satellites to demonstrate a more affordable and potentially sustainable approach,” said Erik Richard, Research Scientist at LASP. “Instead of 15 year missions, we could have many smaller missions, maybe 2-3 years each, at much lower cost, and can better assure no gaps in our data collection. We can mitigate risk to the research by sending multiple CubeSats up that fulfill the measurement requirements of longer missions.”
Blue Canyon Technologies, a company based in Boulder and founded by CU Boulder alumni, built the spacecraft. The mission is led by Erik Richard.
Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer (MinXSS-2)
The second payload from LASP is MinXSS-2, a 3U CubeSat that will measure solar radiation changes during solar flares – the short wavelengths from the sun. This high-energy radiation could reveal new information about how the Sun’s magnetic fields twist and snap, potentially sending huge bursts of charged particles toward Earth. These eruptions are harmful to satellites orbiting Earth and can potentially cause disruptions to power grids.
This is the second MinXSS satellite to be launched into space. The first was a mission aboard the International Space Station in 2015, completing nearly one year of science operations before it burned up in Earth’s atmosphere as expected on May 6, 2017.
“We’re excited for this mission,” said Tom Woods, the principal investigator of the MinXSS-2 mission. “Since SSO-A will go to sun synchronous orbit and at higher altitude, the mission will last longer. The satellite instrument will have better spectral resolution than the previous MinXSS. We designed it and shielded it for a 5 year mission, and hope to get great results over that period of time.”
The Importance Of Rideshare
“It’s great that Spaceflight is creating opportunities for these small payloads to fly,” said Woods. “It’s a huge boost to the smallsat industry and especially universities.”
Because LASP’s work is dependent on consistent data flowing from constant satellite monitoring, access to frequent launches is a must. Rideshare reduces the cost and opens up flexibility for scheduling that hasn’t been an option on government launches. Having the opportunity to launch at a fraction of the cost helps LASP maximize its investment in research, and also plan for redundancy in case a satellite fails.
But perhaps the most important role of the rideshare program is the ability of university students to be directly involved in the space program and make real-world contributions to science. More than 40 CU students have worked on the MinXSS mission with professional mentors and contributions from the Aerospace Engineering Sciences professors and LASP engineers.
“Developing a CubeSat is a three year program,” Woods said. “Students can come in and do the whole thing. They can help design, build and fly it within their student career. With big satellites, you can’t do that.”
The Future Of Research
Dedicated rideshare missions could be the future of climate change monitoring and solar research. If these missions demonstrate that monitoring can be done with smaller satellites – with comparable accuracy – it will usher in a new era for LASP.
A typical CubeSat mission costs around $2 million to build and operate – far less than a full-sized science satellite that runs into the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. The lower price allows LASP to take risks on new technology, such as using carbon nanotubes in detectors, that could pave the way for better data for larger missions as well.
LASP has previously deployed two CubeSats and has several more in the planning stages. Today’s launch will build on CU’s growing expertise in this field, Woods said.
With the success of SSO-A, Spaceflight has now launched more than 210 satellites since its founding in 2011. In addition, the company is contracted to launch nearly 100 satellites in 2019. Among the upcoming launches is Spaceflight’s next dedicated rideshare mission, which will occur in 2019 on a Rocket Lab Electron.
This mission was also the first time SpaceX has launched the same booster three times. Falcon 9’s first stage for today’s launch previously supported the Bangabandhu Satellite-1 mission in May 2018 and the Merah Putih mission in August 2018. Following stage separation today, SpaceX once again landed the booster on its “Just Read the Instructions” droneship, which was stationed in the Pacific Ocean.