SmallSat 2016

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SDL sure knows how to treat their guests. They hosted a social “Luau” dinner on the first night there. I made sure I ran every night, to work off the extra calories…

This last week my company sent me to do some hob-nobbing and research work at Space Dynamics Laboratory’s Small Satellite (SmallSat) conference for 2016. It’s an annual event the company hosts, going on thirty years now.

For those who don’t know what a small satellite is, there are a few different definitions, but let’s just say the satellite probably should be 500 kg (1100 lbs) or less. Some might even say 100 kg (220 lbs) or less. And because we work in a field of engineers and scientists, there are sub-categories of small satellites, such as nano, mini, micro–you get the idea. If you can’t measure it and categorize it, you can’t obsess about it, right? You’ve probably seen a small satellite and not known it if you’ve been following Planet’s or Terra Bella’s activities. Cubesats fall under the smallsat definition.

So small satellites are the focus of SmallSat. Entrepreneurs, government organizations, universities, and various companies from varying backgrounds get together to show what they can do, have done, and will do with the small satellite platforms. Technical sessions are running pretty much from 0800 to 1800, with people presenting, ideally, in 15 minute presentations. So people like me, research analysts, show up, hoovering up whatever data and information we can find about this industry. Blogs and space-centric news organizations show up for their stories. And there’s a lot for everyone to talk about. I won’t get into specifics, as that is what my ‘real-life’ job is for. If you want to find out that information, you’ll have to go to the Space Foundation’s Space Report Online.

I’ve been to this event twice before, both of those times as an employee of SDL. The difference between those times and the conference this year is striking, particularly the level of energy and activities going on in the small satellite community. Both were very high this year. The support industries for small satellites seemed quite excited about field products for small satellites, and seem to think there’s going to be a lot of growth in this field. The small satellite builders, both new and old, seem to be receiving lots of orders and interest for their products. Operations services indicated growth in telemetry and data requirements. The activities, services, and experiments conducted by, and proposed for, small satellites, seems to be limited only by the imagination (and limited launch opportunities–hopefully that’s fixed soon).

To my eyes, there appears to be a lot of opportunity here. There are those that moan we’ve seen this before, and that we’re in a bubble. But the circumstances propelling the interest and growth in small satellites are different–very different. And if it’s a bubble, is that really a bad thing? Even with the collapse of the internet bubble, I think things are better today overall than they were at the height of that bubble. And we’re not in a bubble yet. But it will happen eventually, as “irrational exuberance” takes hold in this industry too.

If I were in my twenties today, and interested in space, I’d be working hard on concepts to get my own start-up going, or working in a start-up to get the needed experience, and eventually move on. None of this going to NASA or the USAF for space operations nonsense. Those organizations have very focused missions, but as I’ve noted before, small satellites seem to bring out the imagination and healthy risk-taking of motivated individuals.

But as it is, I’m having tremendous fun learning from the very energized small satellite sector, chewing on the information, and writing about it. I’m thankful SmallSat exists to bring not just national, but international focus and energy together, to learn more, and for conference participants to strut their stuff. If you’re motivated enough, try to get a paper or two in.

 

Your Comrade Through Space History

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Take a walk through history. Image from Roscosmos.

A friend of mine passed along this link today: http://inspacewetrust.org/en/. Before you click on it, you should have some time on your hands. This is an animated walk through history, thanks to Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency. It’s a very dynamic and cool way to present some of the more important historic bits in space history.

Initially, there’s a Russian space history focus. But as the little space traveller goes along, more international missions get discovered. Really, that site is all this short blurb of a post is about, but maybe it will help make the mid-week bearable for some of you.

If you are Russian, learning Russian, or have Russian friends, you can go directly to: http://inspacewetrust.org/. Either site is pretty nifty, maybe proving that it doesn’t matter the language–space is just fun.

P.S.: Don’t forget to move the mouse around on the initial load screen. The spacewalking cosmonaut is more than a pretty picture.

Deployment Diversity

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The Orbital ATK Cygnus, just snatched up for docking with the ISS by the station’s Canadarm2. Image from NASA.

Sometime in the past few days, new objects showed up in the satellite tracking database published by Space-Track.org. This is nothing new. Space-Track.org is supposed to do this every day. It’s their job: tracking and identifying objects orbiting the Earth, primarily for the United States Department of Defense, and as an ancillary service to the public and commercial organizations.

However, what was different about these objects was when and how they were deployed in orbit. Space-Track gave numbers to the objects associating them with the launch of a ULA rocket with an Orbital ATK Cygnus International Space Station (ISS) resupply capsule that occurred in March 2016. These objects showed up in late June, after the Cygnus capsule had departed from the ISS. Orbital ATK noted that five cubesats would be deployed before the Cygnus re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Space-Track identified the objects as cubesats belonging to Spire Global.

As near as I can tell, this is the first time this sort of satellite deployment has happened. What basically happened was the cubesats hitched a ride up on the Cygnus to dock with the ISS. Then stayed aboard the Cygnus while it was docked with the ISS for three months or so until the Cygnus left the ISS. Once Cygnus left, the cubesats were deployed in the desired orbit. Initially, this doesn’t sound much different from cubesats deploying from a deployer during a rocket’s ascent to orbit. That kind of rideshare has been occurring for some time now. And it might not sound much different from cubesats deploying from the ISS, which is on track this year to deploy even more cubesats than in 2015.

But there are some possible differences that makes this kind of post-ISS deployment desirable. What immediately comes to mind is deploying the cubesats that way gives the owners more flexibility in what low Earth orbit (LEO) the satellites can be placed in. Depending on whether the Cygnus has power left over after it’s ascent to the ISS, the orbital inclination (the angle of an orbit as it goes across the Earth’s equator) might be different than that of the ISS. There’s also the possibility of using a Cygnus-like dedicated cubesat deployer to deploy more than five cubesats. Imagine an entire constellation, maybe 50 or more cubesats belonging to one company, being deployed this way.

A bigger, dedicated deployment spacecraft is not too far from reality. SpaceX keeps pushing back the launch of Formosat 5, which unfortunately, is also tied with Sherpa. A Falcon 9 will be conducting a launch of the two spacecraft sometime during the third quarter of 2016…unless they postpone it again. Formosat 5 isn’t that interesting. It’s an optical Earth observation satellite, one of many orbiting the Earth. Sherpa, however, is more interesting.

Sherpa has been called a space tug. Sherpa is designed, by the folks at Spaceflight Services, to deploy cubesats. A LOT of cubesats. When it launches with Formosat 5, it will eventually deploy 87 cubesats. A Dnepr cluster mission launched in 2014, which deployed the most types of small satellites so far, 37 (don’t let their advertised number of 33 fool you–there was s a satellite that deployed more satellites on board the Dnepr), doesn’t even approach half of Sherpa’s projected deployments. Of course Sherpa needs to be launched first.

There seem to be many different ideas for how to place small satellites in orbit. The weight and size standards set for cubesats in particular, seem to be encouraging people to be creative. The post-ISS Cygnus deployments and Sherpa tug both seem to indicate that no matter which way is offered, there is someone willing to fund a cubesat.

Spire Global, in the case of the Cygnus deployments, has been busy populating low Earth orbits with their own imagery/Earth observation constellation, which might be called Lemur. They’ve also had a few cubesats deployed from the ISS Nanoracks CubeSat Deployment system this last May.

 

Stage Two Engine Test

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Right stage, wrong year. That is a Saturn V second stage in the hoist, but the picture was taken in 1967. Image is from NASA.

I wrote this “Apollo 50th Anniversary Moment” prior to the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium this year. While a lot of important things happened in April 1966 for the Apollo program, I thought the Saturn V second stage engine test was worth focusing on–especially since it helped with some wordplay. I think. And it’s kind of fun to link what was going on then through history to what’s been going on now.

Here’s the article: Stagecraft Through the Years.

By the way, NASA doesn’t call it the Mississippi Test Facility anymore. It’s now the John C. Stennis Space Center–a bit more unwieldy to pronounce, but right in line with NASA’s penchant for pulling complexity out of the simplest things. You can read about the center by clicking on this link.

The Temporary “Space Operators”

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Japan’s part in space talked about during their session. Picture from me–TMSB.

It’s been a little over a day since the organization I work in, the Space Foundation, hosted the 32nd Space Symposium at our beautiful Broadmoor resort here in Colorado Springs. Thousands of people from around the world came to meet us and others to talk about all sorts of space topics during the last week. Of course we’ve been getting ready for the event for much longer than that.

While I work alongside awesome teammates and volunteers, I also talked with very cool and interesting visitors I never thought I’d be able to chat with in my life: a Congressional aide or two, a Czech sounding instrument engineer, a German optics payload specialist, a Puerto Rican launch company startup–just for starters. And me being me, the mind keeps gathering information in the background and processing it–while talking, while walking, while driving, and–and this is certainly problematic–while sleeping. So the thoughts I’m about to elaborate on are my own–not the Space Foundation’s–and I don’t want anyone to think anything I put here represents what the Space Foundation is promoting, because it doesn’t.

The upshot is there’s so much going on in space, it’s mind-boggling. As a research analyst in the space industry, I try my hardest to keep the pulse of the world in space activities. First of all, it’s my job. But second, I love doing it. I look up information for companies, organizations, startups and more who are doing something with space be it products, services, data, infrastructure, employment. It’s always changing, and I’m always surprised by what I find.

Do my activities mean I know everything about what’s going on? Absolutely not. And that point certainly hit home this last week as I talked with Symposium participants about what they did, what their plans were, and their thoughts about what they saw as a future in space. There was even a former Army colonel, a colleague of mine, working for a company now, who has big space dreams which I won’t elaborate on because those dreams are for him to unfold and hopefully succeed with. And I wish him well. Smart or energetic personalities continue to push their vision of their part in the space industry, which is why I am laxly putting them all under the “space operations” title. if only during last week.

As a former space operator in the USAF, I know there are differences between what I did, and what the people I met at Symposium are doing. Some are also space operators in “real life,” since space agencies, space services providers, and the military were also there. But we all have done or are doing our part to make the world a better place, using space as the tool to do so. For this one week, we were all “space operators” before heading back to become that optical specialist, sounding engineer, launch vehicle startup, or research analyst. Each one in a role in resolving problems that will allow them or their company to become successful, usually by introducing something ultimately useful in making space cheaper, more affordable, more relevant than ever.

So now we all go back to those roles. For me, this happens a little later, as there are only slightly less than fifty of us in the Space Foundation, and while it’s been fun, we really need a break. But, based on my conversations, this whole next year of space activities is going to be fun to watch, giving us quite a bit to talk about during Symposium next year. The markets space is involved in have expanded, but it would be foolish to think those are the only markets for space. As in our day-to-day activities, there will be new markets and new opportunities. It would be more interesting if we could see more Chinese and Russian presence, but as in “What about Bob?” it’s baby-steps–especially in space. Each step another “small step” for mankind.