Whoopsies! Or perhaps a more intense, colorful yet NSFW word went through the minds of the astronauts inhabiting the International Space Station (ISS) due to events last Thursday, Sept 4, 2014. Because that’s when one of the astronauts noticed the Pod Bay, erm, I mean the ISS Cubesat launcher doors were open. The actual name of the cubesat launcher is the JEM Small Satellite Orbital Deployer, (see update below for more accurate information) although I’m very sure the astronauts have a few other names for it right now.
According to this Discovery News post, the crew had been troubleshooting the launcher apparently since it accidentally launched two Planet Labs cubesats on Aug 23, 2014. The day before Sept 4, they were trying to actually get the launcher’s deployment doors to open (I’m sure the words “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” were whispered somewhere). The astronauts were doing very sophisticated troubleshooting, like jiggling the satellite launcher.
The cannon didn’t launch when it should’ve, and launched when it shouldn’t have–this is a problem the astronauts really didn’t need. But if it’s the only problem they have to deal with during their tour in low earth orbit, then maybe it’s something to be thankful for. I can only imagine that astronauts would prefer not to be surprised by the equipment they’re working with. Reliability and safety are not just a Consumer Reports buying guide for astronauts, but are honest to goodness life and death requirements for them. So having a hinky satellite launch cannon on board the ISS, while great for a Rocketman II movie plot, isn’t excellent probably for the ISS astronauts’ peace of mind.
The launcher again launched two more Planet Labs cubesats, which might be problematic for the cubesat company. Normally the satellites would be launched at a particular time in a particular place in orbit to help with predictability, tracking, etc. But now Planet Labs’ Dove cubesats might unintentionally be part of the space debris surrounding the Earth–all thanks to a finicky cubesat launcher.
One thing to think about, this launcher is probably networked, because it can also be controlled from the ground. What if all this time it was controlled from the ground, through something akin to Skynet? After all, the system is supposed to be self-aware already. Hmmm…
UPDATE: First, please read Joe Pascucci’s comment below. He’s corrected a misperception of mine. I didn’t realize there were two kinds of satellite deployers on board the ISS. NanoRacks actually developed a different deployer for cubesats called the NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer, which is the hinky launcher. See the video below showing the NRCSD in action. Thank you Joe!