Generation Orbit is a new subsidiary of SpaceWorks Engineering. Headed by SpaceWorks veteran A.C. Charania, Generation Orbit plans to develop an air-launch system for nanosatellites.

Generation Orbit estimates there are 250 nanosatellite projects at the present time. It expects that there will be a market for 100 nano satellite launches per year by the end of this decade. Currently, most small satellites are launched as secondary payloads on rideshare missions, which means their operators have little or no control over launch schedule and orbital destination. Generation Orbit believes that air launch will provide more flexibility.

The company’s initial demonstrator, GO Launcher 1, would use existing solid-fueled upper stages. Go Launcher 1 could mature into an operational capability capable of delivering 1-10 kilograms to a 250-kilometer circular orbit.

GO Launcher 2 would be a larger system capable of placing 20-30 kilograms into a 450 km circular orbit. It might incorporate new technology.

Generation Orbit’s conceptual design appears quite open at the present time. The company’s website shows potential concepts based on the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II and F-15D Eagle, the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, and a Gulfstream II or III business jet.

Gulfstream, F-4 Phantom II, F-15 Eagle, and Su-27 Flanker

The F-15 option parallels a future concept being studied at at Premier Space Systems.

The Su-27 option might seem odd choice, given that Generation Orbit intends to operate in the US. The company hopes to fly from a variety of launch sites including the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, NASA Dryden Flight Research Center in California, Kennedy Space Center, and Cecil Field Spaceport in Jacksonville, Florida. 

There is at least one operation Su-27 in the United States at the present time, however. Reliable sources tell us that the registered owner is actually a dummy company owned by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. There is no reason to believe he’s involved with Generation Orbit, however.

By coincidence, Paul Allen is also has an interest in air-launch projects, having financed the development of SpaceShip One and being the founder of Stratolaunch.

A.C. Charania has participated in workshops for NASA’s Nanosatellite Launch Challenge, so it seems a safe bet that Generation Orbit intends to compete for that prize.

Written by Astro1 on April 21st, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites Tags:

Montana State University has announced plans to build a technology-test satellite called PrintSat. A one-unit CubeSat (10 cm on a side), PrintSat will be built out of nano-carbon-impregnated plastic using a 3D printer.

PrintSat was selected by NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative in 2012 and may be in space as soon as 2013.

MSU professor David Klumpar said 3D printing “will further lower the costs and speed the development of very small satellites, enabling future scientific missions comprised of dozens of satellites flying in formation.”

Printing satellite parts on Earth for use in space is one thing, but Made in Space is a startup company that wants to use 3D printers to manufacture parts in space. Made in Space tested two printers on Zero Gee flights in the summer of 2011 under the sponsorship of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. In one experiment, they manufactured an open-end wrench to show how 3D printing could produce tools for use aboard a future space station.

Made in Space hopes  test their 3D printing technology aboard a suborbital flight in the near future.

Contrary to popular belief, 3D printing is not limited to plastics. 3D printers have been demonstrated with a wide variety of materials including metals. Paul Breed of Unreasonable Rocket has demonstrated the use of such a printer to build rocket engines.

Written by Astro1 on April 21st, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites, Rocketry

Space Florida, which manages the $3-million Nanosatellite Launch Challenge for NASA, has published draft rules for the competition.

The goal of the Nanosatellite Launch Challenge is to encourage the development of new systems for low-cost, frequent launches of small payloads.

The draft rules call for a prize of $1.5 million going to the first team that completes two successful launches, with a payload of one kilogram each, within a period of seven days. Each payload must complete at least one orbit of the Earth with a maximum perigee of 2000 kilometers. Both launches must use the same vehicle type and design.

Second and third prizes of $1 million and $500,000 go to the next two teams to achieve the goal. The payload does not need to be functional. 

The first prize can be won by a ground-launched or air-launched vehicle. If the first prize is won by a ground-launched vehicle, the second prize can only be won by an air-launched vehicle, and vice versa.

The Nanosatellite Launch Challenge is part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program. Unlike most Centennial Challenges, which require systems to be developed solely with private investment, the Nanosatellite Launch Challenge allows vehicles based on designs developed by or for the government. Vehicles must be manufactured without substantial government investment (more than initial phase one SBIR funding or $150,000 whichever is greater).

This seems like a curious rule, since the purpose of Centennial Challenges is normally to encourage the development of a system or capability without traditional government development contracts. It would be theoretically possible for a team to win the Nanosatellite Launch Challenge with a rocket developed entirely at government expense, paying only for the cost of two launches. (In practice, there has been a notable lack of government interest in nanosatellite launcher development.)

Written by Astro1 on April 19th, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites, Rocketry

Robert Cong, product marketing manager at Jameco Electronics, has posted an article on using nitinol muscle wire for motor-less mechanical motion.

Nitonol, a nickel-titanium alloy, is sometimes called memory metal. It’s been around since the 1960’s. In the 1973, an engineer at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory used nitinol to build the world’s first solid-state heat engine.

Nitinol has some interesting possible applications robotics, low-cost space probes, and nanosatellite deployment mechanisms. We would like to see citizen scientists explore some of those possibilities.

More information on nitinol is available at Nitinol University.



Written by Astro1 on April 10th, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites, Robotics

Was NASA’s experiment with low-cost “Faster, Better, Cheaper” planetary missions really a failure? The conventional wisdom is being challenged by acquisition professions.

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Written by Astro1 on April 10th, 2012 , Innovation

Robert Staehle of JPL gave a presentation on Interplanetary CubeSats at NASA’s Institute of Advanced Concepts On March 28. The interplanetary CubeSat idea is rapidly catching on, as demonstrated by the Interplanetary CubeSat Workshop scheduled to take place at MIT on May 29-30 with NASA Chief Technologist Mason Peck as keynote speaker.


(You can view the presentation at if the YouTube video is unavailable.)

The interplanetary CubeSat concept is evolving rapidly. Staehle assumes that solar sails are arequired technology for propulsion. Another option has already emerged, however. The Microsystems for Space Technologies Laboratory at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’ has created a small ion engine for CubeSat-sized payloads. Theion drive weighs only 200 g including enough propellant to send a CubeSat from Earth orbit to the Moon or Mars


Planetary missions may soon be within reach of citizen scientists. Just getting a CubeSat into Earth orbit remains a problem, though. NASA’s Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge prize may help. A number of companies are already working on innovative solutions to the problem, including Premiere Space Systems (Nanolaunch) and XCOR Aerospace.

Written by Astro1 on March 31st, 2012 , Innovation, Lunar Science, Nanosatellites, Planetary science

Astronomy has entered a new era of mega-telescopes, where even ground-based instruments can cost upwards of a billion dollars. The James Webb Space Telescope is expected to cost more than $8 billion. Obviously, such instruments are well out of the range of citizen scientists. The future for amateur astronomy is not dim, however. Smaller, lower-cost telescopes remain relevant and useful for astronomy.

For this reason, both professional and amateur astronomers should welcome the development of reusable suborbital spacecraft which can carry small telescopes on short-duration missions. These low-cost missions will enable many astronomical experiments that benefit from access to space but do not need (and often cannot afford) a ride to orbit.

Flying telescopes on suborbital spacecraft is not a new idea. In the 1960’s, the X-15 rocketplane flew a number of telescopes for NASA. The NASA Office of Space Sciences sponsored the Ultraviolet Stellar Photography experiment, for example, which photographed Alpha Aurigue, Eta Aurigue, and Rho Aurigue from altitudes above 246,000 feet.

Professional astronomers are already starting to develop astronomical instruments for the new commercial suborbital vehicles. Among the first of these instruments is the Atsa Suborbital Observatory, designed by Dr. Faith Vilas of the Planetary Science Institute and Dr. Luke Sollitt of The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. Dr. Vilas recently left her position as director of the MMT (Multiple Mirror Telescope) Observatory to develop Atsa.

The Atsa Observatory is based on commercial off-the-shelf components. The optical component is a 14-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, with some modifications to increase its ruggedness. The main sensor will be a commercially available Silver 220 or  Thermovision SC4000 infrared camera. Visiting scientists will have the option of bringing their own sensors, however.

Atsa Observatory suborbital space telescope

Atsa (the Navaho word for “eagle”) will fly on the XCOR Lynx Mark III. It will be controlled during flight by a payload operator in the Lynx’s right seat. Having a human in the loop means that researchers won’t have to spend a lot of money automating their experiments and debugging control software. The Lynx spacecraft will do the coarse pointing of the telescope using its maneuvering thrusters, but a gimbal-drive-motor assembly will do the fine pointing. Atsa will ride in the Lynx’s dorsal experiment pod and be exposed to space by a door during flight. Dr. Vilas says, “The best window is no window.”

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Written by Astro1 on March 28th, 2012 , Astronomy, Innovation, XCOR Aerospace

The International Space Apps Challenge is a two-day “codeathon” to be held in the US, Great Britain, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Kenya, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic. Astronauts onboard the International Space Station will also participate as will researchers at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Supporting organizations include NASA, the UK Space Agency, the Internet Archives, the Yahoo Developers Network, Random Hacks of Kindness, the Open Knowledge Foundation, Joint Polar Satellite System Project, US Embassy in Jakarta, Australian National University, and the University of Tokyo.

The event takes place on April 21-22. In the US, the Challenge is led by Geeks Without Borders and will take place at TechShop San Francisco.

Participants at the event may work on a number of individual challenges centering around software, open hardware, citizen science, and data visualization. One challenge is to create plug-in hardware, such as a spectrometer or photometer, for a smartphone, which could be used in citizen-science projects. A solution might include an open-source framework to connect a variety of sensors, which might measure atmospheric conditions, radiation, electromagnetic interference, or other conditions.

Another challenge, submitted by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, is to create an educational app that allows users to measure the size of the Earth using Eratosthenes’ method. Discovered by the famous Greek astronomer 2500 years ago, Eratosthenes’ method demonstrates the use of common geometric principles for practical purposes.

NASA is also challenging participants to create apps to interface with data from the NASA Planetary Data System, Kepler satellite, and Earth Observations website.

A complete list of all challenges is available here.

Written by Astro1 on March 9th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General), Innovation

Rocket City Space Pioneers and its partner Spaceflight Services are offering a unique opportunity for small payload developers: a chance to share a ride to the Moon. Or at least, to lunar orbit.

Rideshare payload stack

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Written by Astro1 on February 22nd, 2012 , Commercial Space (General), Innovation, Nanosatellites Tags:

Kyle Godin, a graduate student at Stevens Institute of Technology, has demonstrating a new solid-state thruster for low-cost satellites. His work has now been recognized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, which awarded Godin the Abe M. Zarem Award for Distinguished Achievement in Aeronautics. This development will be of potential interest to citizen scientists, as the press release notes:

Thanks to the development of microsatellites, universities and independents can now launch research craft for tens of thousands of dollars, rather than the multi-million dollar price tags of traditional launches. This new class of satellite is democratizing outer space exploration and offering NASA new opportunities to study little-known regions of the Earth’s atmosphere.

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Written by Astro1 on February 19th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General), Innovation, Nanosatellites