In Depth Look at NASA’s New Launch Pad For Tiny Satellites & Miniature Rockets
by Chris Haber
When we think of NASA’s uncrewed exploration of space, most think of the $2.5 billion school bus-sized Hubble Space Telescope which took 10,000 people 10 years to build. Others think of the many other extremely large experiments like Hubble’s upcoming replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope, which began development in 1996 and is currently set to launch in October 2018. We think of the multi-billion dollar flagship science missions like the car-sized Mars rover Curiosity that has been making headlines with its groundbreaking discoveries, finding the building blocks for life and confirming water on ancient Mars. Many still remember the 1970’s Voyager spacecraft which are exploring the edges of our solar system today.
Now, NASA is changing all of that with their newest program to launch the smallest satellites ever built. At a fraction of the size of the very first satellite humans ever launched, CubeSats, a standardized class of NanoSats, are built in 4″ cubes with a tiny 1qt of volume to cram all the science into with a max of 2.8lbs of weight, compared to 1957’s Sputnik-1 at 184lbs, 22.8in diameter, and it didn’t do much but beep.
NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program considers anything around 3ft tall and 180kg to be small and are they even developing small landers and Earth Return Vehicles to bring samples back from distant bodies! Their primary concern is adding new capabilities on new missions and they are constantly talking with scientists to see what the science community needs.
CubeSat development began in 1999 at Stanford University and California Polytechnic State University as a skill development tool for graduate students who were given clear plastic Beanie Baby display cases and told to build small satellites with capabilities similar to Sputnik.
CubeSat launches go back to 2003 and NASA began working with them in 2009 as a student-led collaborative project between NASA’s Ames Research Center and the International Space University. In 2010, NASA created the CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) to help educational institutions and non-profits access space for free on existing upcoming launches. NASA began selecting CubeSats that addressed agency goals in both their Strategic Plan and the Education Strategic Coordination Framework (science, exploration, technology development, education or operations) and prioritized them for launch.
105 satellites were selected from 30 states (not including NASA-built satellites) in hopes to advance the development of flight qualified hardware by taking cutting-edge technology and proving it in space for use in large flagship spacecraft. During the White House Maker Faire last year a White House Maker Initiative was announced to launch 50 small satellites from 50 states within 5 years (2019), specifically targeting the 21 “rookie states” that had not yet participated.
Garrett Skrobot, Educational Launch of Nano-satellite (ELaNa) mission manager, said “It proves the technology for our larger spacecraft… If we find a sensor or a battery that works better, we can fly it on one of these and (see) whether it works. Then the team that uses it on something else does so with a lot more confidence.”
PhoneSats are one example of CubeSats. The program began with PhoneSat 1.0 to prove that an inexpensive, mass-produced consumer-off-the-shelf (COTS) smartphone could work as an avionics system for larger satellites. The concept is simple – smartphones already come with everything you need to use as a brain for a satellite. They are already built rugged for everyday abuse and prepackaged with advanced processors, memory, sensors, GPS, cameras, radios for transmitting and receiving, accelerometers, advanced operating system software that can be updated remotely, and more.
The plan was to increase on-orbit processor capability by a factor of 10 to 100 while decreasing cost by the same factor, all while continuing to advance avionics miniaturization while using COTS parts for all subsystems (i.e. power, Air Data Computer [ADCS], communications, etc.). The end product is a high-capability spacecraft at low cost. Rather than making the satellites larger, advancing technology always leads to miniaturization which frees up internal CubeSat volume and weight for additional payload, and using commercially available parts means the research & development are already done and the cost has been brought down for consumers by mass production. In the last few years, small satellites have decreased in mass by 75%! That means less it costs fuel and less money to launch!
Smartphones will continue to improve, allowing even more sophisticated satellites in the future without NASA having to develop the hardware. Andrew Petro, Program Executive for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate Small Spacecraft Technology Program and Acting Director of the Early Stage Innovation Division of the Office of the Chief Technologist, said “With the miniaturization of electronics you can begin to put lots of interesting stuff into a package like that… There’s lots of things that the technology itself makes possible. An interesting thing about this is that… cell phone technology… that came from a huge investment that was made over decades… by NASA and other government agencies for government programs to make possible the space missions that we had back then and continue to have.
That investment then got into the private sector where it has resulted in consumer products that we all use now and take for granted. We can now take that mass-produced technology and apply it in our space missions and make them more affordable and in some cases even more capable than we could otherwise… Another nice thing about that is because there is a market for these kind of devices they’re going to continue to improve without us making any further investments. We can keep upgrading our systems with that type of technology as it advances to meet consumer needs.”
First, the Google Android operating system was selected for its open-source architecture, allowing anyone to create apps that NASA can use, possibly even loading them on the phone after it’s in orbit. HTC’s Nexus One was selected for its low price-point and was tested in vacuum of 2×10-6 Torr and temperatures from -95ºF to +140ºF. The phone performed perfectly and the motherboard showed no evidence of deterioration.
A structure was 3D-printed to hold the phone and extra components in place and unnecessary programs & hardware were shut off to preserve battery life. The phone’s factory battery was removed, several large battery cells were wired into it, and the tiny internal antenna was replaced by a long piece of measuring tape.
Because the PhoneSats, tumbling freely through space, would have no way of deciding which direction their cameras looked, some software was added to look through the pictures it took and chose the best based on the amount of light and dark, put them into small data packets and transmit them back to Earth on its UHF beacon.
The phone itself did not communicate with Earth, it was hooked up to a COTS one-way radio that was added for transmission only. Another COTS part used was a watchdog circuit for monitoring critical systems and rebooting the phone if it stops transmitting. Other than that, it mostly remained in factory configuration. The total cost of the PhoneSat 1.0 was a mere $3500 each in components before bulk discounts that could be considered in future missions.
The first change to PhoneSat 2.0 is obvious – the outside is covered in solar panels. Rather than using affordable low-output cells, NASA found a company who buys scrap clippings from the highest-output state-of-the-art solar panels available and arranges them on a simple plastic panel for high output at low cost. The panels even have holes for cameras and sensors to be added optionally. Internally, the phone was upgraded to a Samsung Nexus S for its faster processor, avionics capabilities and gyroscopes.
To save on weight and space, the motherboard of the phone was removed from the shell and a GPS receiver & two-way S-band radio was installed so engineers could command the satellite from Earth. The camera was removed since it was already installed in the 1.0. NASA also added electromagnetic attitude control by adding magnetorquer coils, electromagnets that use Earth’s magnetic field, allowing the spacecraft to face correctly relative to the magnetic field of Earth, along with reaction wheels, motors that can help it to face any direction. These cost around $5,000 each.
After more than a year of waiting for a secondary payload slot to open up in a flagship flight manifest, two 1.0 and one 2.0 flew in space on the PhoneSat-1 mission in April 2013 to demonstrate and prove the hardware. The primary mission was only about four days, so with concerns over the PhoneSats becoming orbital debris (space junk) that would endanger other spacecraft after they died, a lower altitude orbit was chosen to shorten the orbital lifetime since any orbit below 300mi above Earth decays rapidly. They were inserted below the International Space Station, which is at 249mi, to avoid collision.
NASA, along with amateur radio operators around the world, received transmissions of cell phone pictures and satellite health data for about a week before the planned burn-up during re-entry. Anyone could then upload what they received to a website run by NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley which oversees the project.
Because the 2.0’s motherboard was removed from the phone’s shell which is made to absorb the heat, there were concerns before flight that it may overheat other components inside the cube, but they all worked perfectly the entire time, including beginning transmissions immediately upon being deployed. Because the batteries lasted the entire time, the battery life is still unknown, but expected to be around a year for the 1.0 with no recharging. One of the PhoneSats on PhoneSat-1 was even equipped with an Iridium Satellite Phone data modem to transmit directly to NASA, proving the capability.
The PhoneSats were really just to prove that the hardware works. Other CubeSats will demonstrate solar arrays, electric solar wind sail (E-Sail) propulsion, Earth imaging, solar generators that wirelessly feed other satellites, solar-electric propulsion, microelectric plasma propulsion, the ability to leave Earth orbit for deep space, high-output tritium-powered betavoltaic batteries, radiation shielding, and even flying in constellations (swarms).
One use of a swarm could be to check ahead of a large satellite to investigate areas where one would not risk the main spacecraft, even possibly deploying only one at a time as disposable probes to impact a landing surface to see if it is safe to land. Another idea is to build a constellation to study atmospheres of planets and moons all in sync.
They will record data in real-time and transfer it back to Earth, testing whether CubeSats can be used as communication relays between Mars and Earth. Also, proving CubeSats can survive in deep space without Earth’s radiation shield while being produced in a few months to a year will open the way to fast, cheap exploration of the entire solar system.
One day, swarms could even explore other planets on their own. Swarms of CubeSats can even be used to measure space weather from multiple locations at once, with hundreds of satellites around the planet networked to each other, all sharing data and transmitting back to Earth using any single one, and it’s all built on the PhoneSat architecture. Using this type of constellation and comparing measurements from all around the planet at once, we can identify structures in Earth’s magnetic field. The same thing could be said for observing the Earth itself, its weather, CO2, energy balance, etc, using numerous, simultaneous measurements. Even something as simple as taking a snapshot of the entire planet at once could be useful and none of these things can be done with a single, large, expensive flagship satellite.
Another NASA CubeSat mission, OCSD (Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration), will demonstrate high-bandwidth laser communications with data downlinks to Earth and networking & communication with CubeSats and other spacecraft while also demonstrating low-cost sensors including adapted radar from automobiles and built-in GPS for location and velocity.
This will be critical in proximity operations that will require the spacecraft to maintain and adapt the constellation’s formation. Another upcoming NASA mission, CubeSat Proximity Operations Demonstration (CPOD), will launch two 3U CubeSats together which will separate in space, track each other, rendezvous and dock back to each other multiple times. Yet another, built by NASA’s Jet Laboratory Laboratory (JPL) at CalTech uses the rear of its solar panel as a reflector to focus the radio beams for transmissions back to Earth, making the data rate 100-200 times faster.
Just as increasing the quality of digital cameras while lowering the price allowed a new wave of artists to enter photography without the cost of film, the new miniature satellites that school kids can build inexpensively can now be launched economically, opening the way for future scientists who may never have had the chance to do a real experiment otherwise. It also allows academia and smaller companies, many of which have been started by former students who used CubeSats in school, to conduct science in microgravity much more affordably.
CubeSats have been developed by NASA, academia, large companies like Boeing, smaller specialized companies like NanoRacks and even through crowdfunded projects by everyday people. NASA has even awarded Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants to further the technology. CubeSats can be built quickly (time is money) on a workbench or desktop without the need for large buildings and cranes. Most CubeSats are hand-delivered to the integration and launch site via airline passenger carry-on luggage.
Andrew Petro said “One of the nice things about this whole concept is how it lowers the barrier of entry for anybody that wants to build a satellite. For a few thousand dollars people who know what they’re doing can get together and build a satellite and fly it in space, and I think when you open that opportunity to so many more people, I think you can accelerate innovation… As far as developing our future workforce, what we know is students who are new-hires coming out of college, some of them have designed, built and flown a spacecraft before they ever came to work at NASA.“
But even though CubeSats are so cheap to build they still must catch a ride on a full-sized rocket as a secondary payload. NASA and privately owned CubeSats have launched aboard SpaceX Falcon 1 and 9, ULA Atlas V and Delta II, Minotaur I and IV, Dnepr, Taurus XL, and Orbital Sciences’ Antares rockets resupplying the International Space Station, the Japanese JAMSS HTV, Indian ISRO, Russian Dnepr-1 Rockot, European Avio Vega and have even been deployed from the Space Station itself. Each rocket has different capabilities and each payload usually has a little room left for extra weight. One of the better scenarios is getting around 3x3U of CubeSats on NASA flights like the semi-yearly Space Station resupply missions or large flagship mission launches that don’t occur very often. Air Force launches have also carried CubeSats as secondary payloads.
Today, undergraduate students are building CubeSats they expect to fly in space before graduation. Under NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, 41 CubeSats from over 20 universities have flown in space over the last few years. Another 5 ELaNa missions were planning to launch 14 more CubeSats by August 2016 before the SpaceX rocket explosion during the CRS-7 mission in June, which still has all their flights grounded during the investigation. The 10th ELaNa mission launched 13 CubeSats just last week aboard the NROL-55 mission, including “the first to be designed, built and operated by students in Alaska and the first from Native American tribal college students.” About a dozen more are scheduled to launch aboard the new rail-guided launcher in Hawaii next October.
According to NASA, full-sized missions cost around $100mi to launch. Cargo space for secondary payloads is always limited and always in high demand. Weight is critical and the “coach-class to space” ride usually costs either NASA or the builder around $100,000 per cube unit up to 1kg/U. Even worse, ride-sharing usually doesn’t insert the CubeSat into its optimal orbit, causing mission planners to select experiments based on orbit rather than scientific importance and forcing the satellite manufacturers to either design them around the orbit or sacrifice critical scientific data. Still, with all the CubeSats on the upcoming flight manifests, NASA still has a backlog of 50 unmanifested CubeSats to launch (mainly university research) and is already planning on constructing CubeSats on-orbit from the Space Station using advanced 3D printing techniques so they don’t have to be launched.
NASA says that even now “CubeSat designers learn how to build observatories capable of studying distant black holes and cosmic X-ray background to track geomagnetic storms of Earth’s weather patterns.” Aside from raw science, the farming, shipping, data networking and insurance industries, and many government agencies including the Department of Defense, are already interested in the datasets they can acquire. Unfortunately, the wait for a ride as a secondary payload that does not move on their timeframe or insert the CubeSats into their optimal orbit is no longer an option.
This July, as part of NASA’s widespread 21st Century Launch Complex/Ground Systems imitative of over 300 key projects to transform Kennedy Space Center into a modern, open-architecture multi-user spaceport, NASA opened their newest launch pad at KSC, Space Launch Complex 39C. Located inside SLC-39B which launched Apollo & Space Shuttle astronauts, 39C will launch a new class of miniature rockets that haven’t been built yet and the pad will be available to virtually anyone who wants to use it.
Developed by NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations Program, it is a simple 50x100ft concrete slab that can handle a maximum thrust of 200,000lbs, but the possibilities are seemingly endless with the Clean Pad design concept. Launch vehicle providers can use their own ground support equipment or NASA’s. Vehicles can be stacked vertically and rolled out or integrated horizontally and erected on-site.
Several companies have already toured the site and with the several vacant buildings on KSC available for lease, builders can develop, build and launch all from within NASA while having access to processing facilities such as the VAB, vehicle/payload transportation such as the KAMAG, flatbed trucks, tugs, etc. for integration from the facility to the pad, the newly built Universal Propellant Servicing System, technical capabilities, support services, propellant handling & services and launch control & mobile command center options.
By taking advantage of Complex B’s existing infrastructure, the entire project, including engineering and planning, only cost around $900,000 (including Universal Propellant Servicing System). It is expected to be ready no earlier than late 2016/early 2017 with a full NASA ground support compliment, though if a vehicle provider came with their own entire ground support system, they could launch now.
In June, NASA issued a Request For Proposals (RFP) for contractors to begin developing a new type of commercially available rocket under their Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) program. Intentionally departing from the traditional low risk-tolerance, high-value spacecraft paradigm, the low cost of CubeSats makes them high risk-tolerant payloads, allowing NASA a hands-off approach to commercially accelerated development and launch support while opening the gateway to space for commercial customers by drastically lowering the launch cost. It will also lower the wait time for a launch from an average of 2 years to a few weeks.
Mark Wiese, Chief of the Flight Projects Office for NASA’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center said “This time we’re trying to step back a little bit and make sure the government gets out of the way and doesn’t inhibit the commercial solutions these companies are trying to bring forward. But we’re going to definitely get insight so when we do go forward and try to procure a launch service for a low risk-tolerant spacecraft, we’re one step ahead of the game with trying to certify them to make sure they can get safe access to space.”
In addition to the cost savings at launch, spacecraft manufacturers see great savings from having a standardized satellite size and weight flying in a standard container. This saves the launch service provider the complicated and costly process of integrating the payload to the launch vehicle in a new way each time.
Wiese said “We’re at a point in technology where innovations, manufacturing and the growing need for data in our hands real-time has… opened up the door for where we’re at with CubeSats. Space is no longer just for high-value science or the intelligence community. It is a place for a payload you can create that can get up to space…
Traditionally, when the government brings a new capability forward, it’s something that the government puts money out to try to develop. Here, because of that emerging commercial capability, that emerging market, there’s private investment backing the non-reoccurring development costs of these rockets… We’re excited for the competition. I can only begin to imagine the opportunities that these companies will open up for you, your children and the world.”
VCLS vehicles, or small class vehicles, will be around 1000lb, 80-100ft tall and must launch 132lbs of payload in a single launch or two launches carrying 66lbs each, making them the smallest class of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) launch services used by NASA. Compared to the very costly ride-share which typically only fits around 3x3U of Cubes, Venture Class rockets will launch 15 to 30x 3U cubes.
Wednesday, NASA announced the three winners of the VCLS contracts: Virgin Galactic, Rocket Lab USA and Firefly Space Systems. NASA bought 3 demonstration flights and each launch service provider will determine their launch location & date based on their customers’ needs, but NASA requires it occur by April 2018. The high risk-tolerant CubeSats will be used for the demonstration flights because of their low cost. Once proven, each launch provider may begin flying as early as 2017 as they compete for contracts from everyone, not just NASA.
Firefly, a company just started in January 2014, entered the market specifically to reduce the cost of launching small, sub-metric-ton payloads into LEO by building a low-cost rocket. By the October 14, 2015 NASA announcement, after only 20 months, they had already built a 20,000sqft R&D facility, completed many key design reviews, built avionics and other key components, designed, built and hot-fire-tested their engine and constructed a test stand for full-sized integrated rocket testing.
Firefly’s 2-stage all composite rocket, called the Alpha Launch Vehicle, can lift 400 kg of payload to LEO. It already has several suborbital test flights scheduled for 2017 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They will begin commercial launches in March 2018, ramping up over time to 50 LEO launches per year, almost 1 per week, allowing customers to pick and choose their flights based on mission requirements and scheduling needs. Firefly expects each Alpha flight to cost $8mi.
Rocket Lab USA, a company based in New Zealand who has been flying suborbital sounding rockets since 2009 from launch sites they have built all around the world, began development of their Electron Launch Vehicle in 2014. The Electron will be a 18m tall, 1m diameter carbon-composite rocket with a projected cost of less than $5m per launch. It will use Rutherford engines to lift 150kg to a 500km altitude sun-synchronous circular orbit or around 300kg to an elliptical LEO.
Electron’s engines use pumps driven by battery-powered electric motors rather than a preburner, expander or gas generator, and is largely fabricated by 3D-printing, using an electron beam rather than a laser to melt layers of metal powder in a high vacuum.
Rocket Lab’s Electron is fully funded and already scheduled for its first test flight in early 2016. Rocket Lab has also committing to weekly LEO flights and their flight manifest is already completely booked through mid 2018. Electron flights start at $4.9mi. and most of its customers are commercial, not academic or government.
Virgin Galactic, part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and the company many believed would be the first company to bring tourists to space before last October’s SpaceShipTwo crash during a test flight which killed both pilots, already has a long-standing track record including partnerships with NASA to fly secondary science payloads on tourist flights.
Their Venture Class vehicle, an air-launched rocket called LauncherOne, was announced in 2012 and has already booked contracts to launch commercial SmallSat communication satellites. It will launch from a mothership at 35,000ft, giving Virgin unprecedented flexibility for launch inclinations. A couple months ago, Virgin’s LauncherOne program moved into a brand new 150,000sqft facility in Long beach, Los Angeles and has begun outfitting it with state-of-the-art tools, machining and other advanced and additive manufacturing such as 3D printing.
Virgin has also already hot-fired their first-stage engine, NewtonThree, and the program is already fully funded through development and into testing. Thanks to LauncherOne’s engine design, they were able to stretch the vehicle, doubling its performance at the same price. This forced them to change to a commercial mothership aircraft which will be announced soon. Virgin will begin flights from their base at the Mojave Air & Space Port in California, but they can use NASA’s Shuttle landing Facility in Florida, the longest runway in the world. LauncherOne flights will cost under $10mi.
Eric Ianson, Associate Director, Earth Science Division, NASA Science Mission Directorate, NASA HQ said “Venture-class investigations are designed to develop and innovate small science-driven payloads… A low-cost launch vehicle capability to support small, low-cost, innovative payloads is a key step forward for Earth Venture projects.
Developing low-cost launch vehicles that provide access to space for these payloads will result in a sweet balance between mission capability and investment. Affordable launch vehicles will allow NASA to fly complete yet low-cost missions that remain focused on science data. The key, from an Earth science perspective, is getting science payloads into space when and where they’re needed. That is, we don’t have to compromise science objectives to conform to the mission needs of a larger primary payload… Low-cost launch vehicles like these will allow us to add CubeSats (to our science toolbox) today and even larger small satellites tomorrow.”
Over the next 3 years, those 50 backlogged experiments which NASA cannot fit on any upcoming flight manifest will become primary payloads for the ELaNa-19, 20 and 21 missions, using the new Venture Class rockets which will carry 45-90 cube units per launch, compared to typically less than 10 now.
NASA’s Mark Weise stated “This will start to open up viable commercial opportunities… We hope to be one of the first customers for these companies, and once we get going, the regular launches will drive the costs down for everyone… As we drive costs down, that frees up more money for science… We see this emerging capability to launch CubeSats as something the world is going to need.”
By cutting down the time it takes to develop and build research satellites, science return from experiments will speed up drastically, allowing the next generation of satellites to investigate questions discovered by the last. CubeSat courses are springing up in classrooms around the world, almost as fast as 3D-printing. In 10 years children could be flying real experiments in space affordably.
By cutting both the cost of building and launch satellites, one thing is for sure – this game-changing new program will bring new innovation from people who may not have been able to participate before, and that only means one thing – everything is going to start happening faster now and new consumer technologies will start appearing even more rapidly than today.
For more information on CubeSats go to cubesat.org .
Chris Haber is a photographic artist, STEM/STEAM educator and photojournalist based in Cape Canaveral, Florida. You can follow him at www.ChrisHaber.com , @ChrisHaber_com on Twitter and Chris Haber Photography on Facebook and Google+