A tiny, low-cost weather satellite may point the way toward new, distributed architectures for meteorology.
MicroMAS (Micro-sized Microwave Atmospheric Satellite) combines a 1U (10cm x 10cm x 10cm) microwave radiometer from MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory with a 3-axis-stabilized 2U CubeSat bus.
Skybox Imaging has released the world’s first high-resolution, high-definition videos of Earth taken by a commercial remote sensing satellite. Taken by SkySat-1, the first a planned constellation of 24 satellites, the video clips (have not yet been calibrated or tuned) show high-resolution views of Tokyo, Bangkok, Baltimore, Las Vegas, and Aleppo, Syria.
SkySat-1 can capture video clips up to 90 seconds long at 30 frames per second. The resolution is high enough to view objects like shipping containers that affect the global economy. (In these clips, you can make out automobiles moving along the highways.)
SkySat-1 is capable of sub-meter native color and near-infrared imagery. Other unique capabilities based on Skybox’s proprietary technologies will be announced in the near future. But the most revolutionary aspect is the cost, according to Skybox CEO Tom Ingersoll.
“SkySat-1 was built and launched for more than an order of magnitude less cost than traditional sub-meter imaging satellites,” Ingersoll said. “This extremely high performance satellite is made possible by proprietary technologies developed by Skybox, including the integrated satellite and imaging systems designs, which enable Skybox to launch a constellation of satellites that can provide imagery timeliness, quality and dependability that was never before possible.”
Skybox foresees numerous business applications for satellite imagery dynamic satellite video, including supply-chain and industrial-plant monitoring, maritime awareness, and environmental/humanitarian relief.
Skybox has raised $91 million from venture-capital firms Khosla Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, Canaan Partners and Norwest Venture Partners. It is preparing to launch SkySat-2 in early 2014.
The NASA Enabling eXploration and Technology (NEXT) program has selected Generation Orbit Launch Services, Inc. to launch a group of three 3U CubeSats to a 425 km orbit in 2016. Under the $2.1M commercial procurement, NASA will become the inaugural customer for the company’s GOLauncher 2 vehicle, which is currently in development.
NASA is funding work on a new propulsion system that may enable a 10-kilogram (22-point) CubeSat mission to Europa.
Nathan Jarred of the Universities Space Research Association has received a $100,000 Phase I award from the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts to study a dual-mode propulsion concept that pairs electric and thermal propulsion.
High-efficiency electric propulsion would be used for interplanetary maneuvers, with higher-thrust thermal propulsion reserved for quick Earth orbit escape, drastic orbital maneuvering and orbital insertion at the destination.
Jarred will use the NIAC money to design and optimize the various components of the overall system. He will also design an experiment to evaluate propellant performance within the thermal mode using existing hardware at the Center for Space Nuclear Research.
CubeSat technologies may be the antidote to the growing cost of NASA interplanetary missions. The interplanetary CubeSat missions currently under study are generally limited to the inner solar system, however, due to the propulsion problem. New concepts like this one could change that.
A group of students at National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan are developing a CubeSat mission to study radiation hazards on an Earth-Mars trajectory for future human spaceflight. Possible secondary missions include demonstrating an Earth-Mars free-return trajectory, contributing to the search for Near Earth Objects, and imaging the host mission with which the CubeSat will be hitching a ride. A paper on the project is available here.
Planet Labs, a startup company founded by NASA engineers who worked on the PhoneSat project, has announced plans to launch a flock of 28 nanosatellites for remote sensing.
Flock 1 will be launched as a secondary payload on an Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares mission headed for the International Space Station in 2014. Planet Labs (formerly known as Cosmogia) successfully launched two test satellites, Dove-1 and Dove-2, on an Antares test flight and a Soyuz mission in April 2013.
Like NASA’s PhoneSats, Planet Labs’ Dove satellites are built from low-cost non-traditional aerospace parts. Operating a large number of very-low-cost satellites will allow Planet Labs to provide remote-sensing data with unique coverage and cadence. Instead of the traditional model of point-and-shoot imaging with targets chosen by high-paying customers, Planet Labs will have an always-on imaging platform with broad coverage and frequently updated imagery. The CubeSat satellites will be placed into 400-kilometer circular orbits, where they will provide 3-5 meter resolution imaging of the Earth from the equator to 52 degrees (approximately the latitude of London, England or the Falkland Islands).
The scale of the imaging does not compromise privacy but allows monitoring of deforestation, agricultural yields, and natural disasters. The company intends to use an open-data model so that everyone from ecologists to citizen journalists will be able to track changes on the planet.
Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures said, “Planet Labs will create an entirely new data set, with both humanitarian and commercial value. We’ve become used to having imagery of the entire Earth. What we haven’t yet understood is how transformative it will be when that imagery is regularly and frequently updated.”
O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures is one of several venture-capital firms that recently invested $13 million in Planet Labs.
Another investor is Draper Fisher Jurvetson, which also invested in Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). Steve Jurvetson, managing director of DFJ said, “We’re seeing unprecedented innovation in the space industry, starting with SpaceX lowering the cost of access, and now with Planet Labs revolutionizing the satellite segment.” Jurvetson also serves on Planet Labs’ board of directors.
NASA Administrator Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden and Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) recently toured the maker-technology lab at NASA Ames Research Center. NBC Bay Area reports.
Orbital Sciences successfully launched its Antares rocket on Sunday, achieving another milestone for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Future flights of the Antares will carry Orbital’s Antares space tug, which is intended to service the International Space Station. Overlooked by most of the news reports are four small satellites which Antares carried as secondary payloads.
Due to the growing interest in low-cost interplanetary missions, an Interplanetary Small Satellite Conference has been announced. NASA Chief Technologist Dr. Mason Peck will be featured speaker at the conference, which takes place at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena on June 20-21.
Small satellites are typically defined as those weighing less than 500 kilograms, but conference organizers strongly encourage submitters to focus on satellites under 50 kilograms. Abstract submission is now open now and registration will open soon.
Meanwhile, the Second Interplanetary CubeSat Workshop is still scheduled to take place in Ithaca, NY, on or near the Cornell University campus, on May 28-29. Earlier reports that the Interplanetary Small Satellite Conference replaced the workshop were incorrect.
Aviation Week reports that Raytheon has received a $1.5-million, nine-month contract to begin designing a small imaging satellite under the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) project.
SeeMe intends to demonstrate a 24-satellite constellation that can provide rapid tactical intelligence to the warfighter. The SeeMe satellite would provide 1-meter resolution images on demand to handheld terminals in the field.
DARPA specified that each SeeMe should weigh less than 100 pounds. Raytheon’s concept is substantially lighter at 44 pounds. Another goal is affordable, on-demand production. DARPA wants to the manufacturer to be able to deliver a satellite within 90 days of initial order, for no more than $500,000.
Generation Orbit Launch Services, Inc. has announced a strategic partnership with Space Propulsion Group of Sunnyvale, California to continue development of the company’s airborne small-satellite launch system, known as GO Launcher.
Generation Orbit and Space Propulsion Group plan to develop new launch systems offering suborbital and orbital launch services to commercial, government, and academic customers.
Space Propulsion Group has spent the last decade designing, developing, and manufacturing paraffin-fueled hybrid rockets. SPG has ground-tested six 22-inch diameter, flight-weight LOX/paraffin motors, with the latest test taking place in July 2012.
Generation Orbit chief operating officer A.J. Piplica said, “GO and SPG have been developing a working relationship to bring a dedicated launch capability to the micro- and nanosatellite community. With that relationship now formalized, our synergistic development plans are starting to take shape.”
Space Propulsion Group president and chief technology officer Arif Karabeyoglu said, “SPG’s advanced hybrid rockets deliver very high performance while retaining the affordability, safety and simplicity vital to the next generation of small launch vehicles. Combined with Generation Orbit’s innovative approach to air launch, advanced hybrids are a perfect fit for developing a cost effective and responsive launch capability for small satellites.”
Potential participants in the Nano-satellite Launch Challenge are telling us they’ve received official notification from Space Florida that NASA has canceled the Space Act Agreement for the Challenge.
What this means is not exactly clear. In theory, NASA could continue the Nano-satellite Launch Challenge with another partner. Most likely, however, means for the challenges that.
NASA’s explanation is that they surveyed 15 possible nanosat launch projects and found that two government-funded projects (SWORDS and ALASA) were the only candidates that appeared to have a chance of success. That explanation completely miss the point of prizes, which is to reward competitors only if they succeed, rather than prejudging outcomes.
[Update: An email from a NASA employee close to the Centennial Challenges program confirms that SWORDS and ALASA were key factors in the cancelation. The email also states that “NASA has also found a significant technology gap in low cost avionics and GN&C systems needed to support the development of a low cost nano-sat launch system.” That statement sounds surreal when a quick trip to RadioShack can net you a three-axis gyroscope and more computing power than the entire world possessed at the time of Sputnik.]
This announcement is disappointing, on two levels. It’s a setback for the teams who intended to compete, but it’s also a setback for the Centennial Challenges program, which has been drifting these past few years.
The Centennial Challenges program was inspired by the Ansari X-Prize, which proved that a small company could develop and fly a suborbital spacecraft at low cost. The Lunar Lander Challenge, one of the first Centennial Challenges, was a boon for suborbital companies such as Armadillo Aerospace and Masten Space Systems. Unfortunately, with the apparent cancelation of the Nano-satellite Launch Challenge, NASA has no challenges that are aimed at the most important problem facing future space activities – reducing the cost of access to space.
The major part of the blame lies with Congress, which has underfunded Centennial Challenges for years (when it funded it at all).
NASA itself deserves part of the blame, however. Over the years, the focus of Centennial Challenges has shifted from promoting innovation in the American aerospace sector to addressing the specific needs of NASA’s own programs, such as Mars sample return. This shift is not surprising given the way the program has bounced around the agency, finally ending up under the Office of the Chief Technologist.
Compounding the problem is the fact that NASA tried to pick a winning technology horse before the race began. A large part of the Centennial Challenges money was carved out early on for Space Elevator Challenges, even though the space-elevator concept was a high-risk technology with little likelihood of reducing launch costs in the near term. (They were egged on by the Space Frontier Foundation and the Spaceward Foundation, which were enamored of the space elevator despite its questionable economics and low technology readiness level.)
The US government has vested interest in lowering launch costs, and prizes can be a powerful tool for furthering that purpose. Unfortunately, this cancelation casts increased doubt on NASA’s reliability as a sponsor for space-access prizes. At some point, we have to ask ourselves if we’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Perhaps the time has come to consider other agencies, such as DARPA or the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation, as prize sponsors?
Rumors say the $3 million Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge, funded by NASA and run by the Space Florida Small Satellite Research Center, is about to be canceled. The official announcement is said to be coming Monday. [Update: See It’s Dead, Jim.]
NASA’s PhoneSat project has won the Popular Science‘s 2012 Best of What’s New Award for innovation in aerospace. PhoneSat will demonstrate the ability to launch low-cost, easy-to-build satellites with advanced capabilities enabled by off-the-shelf consumer smartphones.
The development of small, low-cost off-the-shelf satellite technology is enabling new capabilities for military as well as civilian users. The US Army is taking advantage of this technological revolution by developing three new satellites to provide tactical imaging for the warfighter.
The Technology Center at the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command is developing Kestrel Eye, an imaging reconnaissance nanosatellite that can be tasked by warfighters on the ground. Kestrel Eye will produce images with a resolution of 1.5 meters (5 feet), which can be downlinked directly to soldiers in the field.
Ardusat is a project that will allow Arduino programmers to run their programs on satellite in space without actually having to build a satellite.
The Ardusat team is developing a CubeSat satellite with an Arduino payload. Arduino, for those who don’t know, is a popular open-source micro controller board. In addition to the Arduino board, the satellite will have an assortment of sensors including a camera, GPS, ozone and carbon-dioxide sensors, a geiger counter, thermometer, magnetometer, inertial measurement unit, and vibration, light, and pressure sensors.
When Ardusat is in orbit, programmers will be able to upload code to run on the Arduino board. There’s also an opportunity to propose additional sensors prior to launch.
The Ardusat team has created a Kickstarter project to help fund the project. They’re trying to raise $35,000. To pledge money to the project, go here.
You can subscribe to the online Journal of Small Satellites at no charge through December 31, 2012. Click here to subscribe.
Flexure Engineering is proposing a modification to the CubeSat standard to meet the requirements of lunar missions: longer duration, higher radiation, and more extreme thermal environments compared to Low Earth Orbit missions. The LunarCube standard would also address integration and operational issues of multiple LunarCubes on one ride-along mission or lander.
The proposed standard was discussed in a paper at the 43rd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in March, 2012. Further discussions will take place at an open forum, the 1st International Workshop on LunarCubes (LunarCubes: The Next Frontier), which is scheduled to take place October 4-6 in Mountain View, California. The proposed workshop schedule includes morning and afternoon sessions on software, electronics, mechanical issues, orbital missions, surface issues, and funding.
Flexure estimates there could be five to ten lunar-lander ride opportunities in the coming decade, based on five national space programs and 25 Google Lunar X-Prize teams. In addition, with weak stability boundary transfers from Geosynchronous Earth Orbit to lunar orbit, every GEO satellite location is a potential starting point for lunar orbit missions.
For more information, see the LunarCubes website.
The National Science Foundation is sponsoring a CubeSat workshop in the DC area on Thursday, May 24.
The event, which carries the rather wordy title of Workshop to Explore the Utility of Cubesat Projects for Scientific Research and Technology Advances and STEM Education and Workforce Development, takes place from noon to 3:00 pm in the atrium of the NSF building at 4201 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22230.