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NASA Develops Satellite Concept to Exploit Rideshare Opportunities
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NASA - Goddard Space Flight Center logo.

Sept. 27, 2016

Each time a rocket blasts off to deliver a primary payload into space, it typically does so with room to spare — a reality that got NASA engineer Joe Burt thinking.

Why not exploit that unused capacity and create a sealed, pressurized, thermally controlled capsule that could take advantage of rideshare opportunities while accommodating less-expensive, off-the-shelf instrument components typically used in laboratory-like settings? Several years in the making, Burt and his team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, now are ready to validate portions of such a system.

Called the Capsulation Satellite, or CapSat for short, the system is a hockey puck-shaped structure that measures roughly 40 inches wide and 18 inches tall. Purposely designed as either a stand-alone system or stacked depending on payload needs, each capsule is capable of carrying about 661 pounds of payload into orbit — a microsatellite-class weight not accommodated by the increasingly popular CubeSat platform whose instruments typically weigh two to six pounds.

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Image above: Goddard engineer Joe Burt now is developing a satellite system that would take advantage of unused capacity on launch vehicles, while accommodating less-expensive, off-the-shelf instrument components typically used in laboratory-like settings. Image Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk.

With funding from NASA’s Earth Science Technology Office, or ESTO, Burt and his team will validate CapSat’s all-important thermal-control system in a thermal-vacuum chamber test in late September. The system uses thermostatically controlled fans — much like those used to cool electronic equipment on Earth — to circulate air over hot and cold plates located inside the craft. This maintains a constant temperature where instruments would experience little, if any, thermal degradation while on orbit, Burt said.

Under the ESTO-funded effort, Burt and Goddard detector expert Murzy Jhabvala also are conducting a study to scope out the specifics of flying a next-generation photodetector camera on a CapSat. The idea is that NASA could fly the detector on a constellation of CapSats to gather multiple, simultaneous measurements.

To show the concept’s feasibility, Jhabvala successfully installed in late July a laboratory version of his Strained-Layer Superlattice Infrared Detector Camera inside the CapSat model. “The main purpose of the camera demonstration was to show how easily a laboratory-based instrument could become a flight instrument, complete with flyable electronics and software connecting it all the way back to the ground data display and analysis,” Burt said.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Burt is the first to admit that pressurized spacecraft are not new, and aside from its thermal-control system, CapSat is not in the technological vanguard. “Flying a mission with pressurized volume goes back to Sputnik,” he said. “There is nothing magical here. Terrestrial pressure in space is a tried-and-true approach,” Burt added. “It happens on the ISS (International Space Station) where scores of laptops are running every day. This is not a new idea.”

CapSat’s Distinguishing Attributes

What distinguishes CapSat is the fact that the capsule can accommodate heavier payloads. Perhaps more important, Burt specifically designed it to take advantage of a U.S. Air Force-developed secondary-payload carrier called the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adaptor, or ESPA ring. Working with Moog CSA Engineering, of Mountain View, California, the Air Force created the ring to accommodate as many as six payloads beneath the primary spacecraft, exploiting the thousands of pounds of unused cargo space on many rockets.

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Image above: CapSat is a pressurized platform designed to carry laboratory-style instruments into space. Image Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk.

Goddard’s new Rideshare Office estimates that between 2015 and 2023, NASA will launch a number of missions whose total combined unused mass-to-orbit will exceed 46,300 pounds. “At an average launch cost of a million dollars-per-kilogram-to-orbit — even CubeSats cost about that — hundreds of millions of dollars in launch-vehicle costs are going unutilized,” said Bob Caffrey, who heads the Rideshare Office. “There really needs to be a paradigm shift,” he added.

In sharp contrast, Burt estimates that CapSat would reduce today’s launch costs of $1-million-per-kilogram-to-orbit to just $50,000-per-kilogram by using a pressurized volume to take advantage of the unused capacity.

Rideshare Opportunities Blossom

Also to consider, he added, is the fact that since its initial development in the early 2000s, the ESPA ring has become the de facto standard for secondary payload carriers, with a growing list of users and opportunities.

In 2009, NASA used the ESPA ring to deploy its Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, which flew as a secondary payload on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Private industry uses it, too. Late last year, SpaceX, of Hawthorne, California, used ESPA rings to mount 11 Orbcomm OG-2 communication satellites inside the Falcon 9 rocket, resulting in a successful deployment.

In the meantime, the U.S. Air Force has announced that it plans to fly the ESPA ring on all future launch vehicles. It also has developed a process for selecting potential rideshare payloads and is creating other versions of the carrier to accommodate a broader range of users. NASA, too, plans to take better advantage of the unused cargo capacity and will be providing rideshare opportunities on its future missions, Burt said.

“Secondary payloads are part of growing trend toward the increasing diversity of platforms used in pursuing space and Earth science,” said Greg Robinson, NASA Science Mission Directorate Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs. “Today, many U.S. government, academic, and industry partners are looking for ways to use secondary payloads as platforms to enable science, mature technologies, and enable workforce development,” he added.

Time is Ripe

Given this confluence of events, the time is ripe for NASA to develop a platform like CapSat, Burt said, adding that Goddard’s Strategic Partnerships Office now is pursuing a patent on the CapSat technology. Not only is it compatible with the ESPA ring, it also is capable of carrying heavier instruments, even those originally built for a terrestrially based laboratory testing. Such a platform, which Burt believes industry ultimately should manufacture and offer at competitive prices, would significantly reduce mission-development schedules and costs.

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Image above: Goddard engineer Joe Burt is applied the CapSat concept to create a smaller pressurized platform, which he calls CapSIT. Image Credit: NASA.

Since CapSat’s roll out, a number of possible new missions have approached Burt about possibly using the platform. One of the more promising opportunities, he said, is flying a debris sensor called DRAGONS, which is short for Debris Resistive Acoustic Grid Orbital Navy-NASA Sensor, on as many as four CapSats. Furthermore, Burt also is developing a smaller CapSat-type platform, which he calls the CapSat Science Instrument Tube, or CapSIT. In this architecture, the pressurized volume for the CapSat science instrument is reduced to a tube about three feet long and one foot wide.

“The bottom line is that the CapSat concept has the potential to make science missions more affordable,” said Azita Valinia, an ESTO executive who awarded the ESTO study. “If proven successful, the CapSat architecture can change the cost paradigm for science missions.”

Robinson agrees. “It’s exciting to see what is being built by the Goddard team to provide researchers a capable and reliable platform for fast turn-around, lower-cost payloads,” he continued. “When combined with the wide array of launch opportunities for these secondary payloads, the opportunities for platforms like CapSat are showing real promise,” he said.

For more technology news, go to: http://gsfctechnology.gsfc.nasa.gov/newsletter/Current.pdf

Goddard Space Flight Center: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/home/index.html

Science Instruments: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/technology/science-instruments/index.html

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, by Lori Keesey/Lynn Jenner.

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The swirling inner layers of our sun cause charged particles to generate magnetic fields. As charges accumulate on the surface, magnetic field lines readjust themselves and release huge quantities of matter and electromagnetic radiation into space. This particular Mass Ejection is traveling at over 900 miles per second and has an energy level equivalent to 160,000,000,000 megatons of TNT. 

Credit: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory/Goddard Spaceflight Center

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Goddard Space Flight Center has published a beautiful photo gallery commemorating Hubble’s 25th anniversary. Goddard installed the telescope’s instruments as well as performed final pre-launch checkouts before being shipped towards NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for launch.

In the first and third images above, Hubble is seen undergoing testing at Goddard. The first photo is Hubble in the Vertical Assembly and Test Area and the second is Hubble undergoing final assembly at Lockheed Martin’s Sunnyvale, California plant.

For more on Hubble’s 25th anniversary, click here.

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Happy #NationalAviationDay!

Today’s post was written by Grace DiAgostino, Student Trainee at the National Archives at Philadelphia.

In honor of National Aviation Day, this post features photographs from the Office Records of the Scout Launch Vehicle (NAID: 616672), a series from our substantial NASA holdings. The Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test, otherwise known as Scout, Launch Vehicle Program began in 1957 after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite. The launch of Sputnik ignited the Space Race, during which the United States and the Soviet Union competed to conquer the next frontier— outer space.  To gain a lead on the USSR, the United States initiated the Scout Launch Vehicle Program to produce an inexpensive, reliable, versatile, solid fuel launch vehicle for smaller payloads.

The first stage of the Scout Program began in 1957 and consisted of development and design at the Langley Airfield Research Center. Scout, an acronym for Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test, is a four-stage solid fuel satellite system capable of launching a 385-pound satellite into a 500-mile orbit, and the rocket consists of four stages: Algol, Castor, Antares, and Altair. The goal of the Scout Project was to produce a relatively inexpensive, reliable, solid fuel vehicle that could be used to launch small satellites into orbit around Earth. Scout was the first orbital launch vehicle to be entirely composed of solid fuel stages.

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Full Disk Image of Earth Captured August 26, 2011 by NASA Goddard Photo and Video on Flickr.

Hurricane Irene can be seen on the U.S. East Coast.

Update: This satellite movie, released earlier today (August 27) by NASA, shows Hurricane Irene moving through the Bahamas and making landfall at Cape Lookout, North Carolina at around 8 a.m. EDT today.

NASA Begins Launch Preparations for the First U.S. Asteroid Sampling Mission by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on Flickr.

NASA’s first spacecraft designed to return a piece of an asteroid to Earth arrived Friday, May 20, at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and has begun final preparations in advance of its September launch.

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will undergo final testing and fueling prior to being moved to its launch pad. The mission has a 34-day launch period beginning on Sept. 8.

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JWST mirror taking shape

by European Space Agency
 
This photograph shows the James Webb Space Telescope mirror taking shape, with 12 of the 18 mirror segments that make up the primary mirror installed. The first of the hexagonal-shaped mirror segments was installed on 22 November 2015, and since then a team of scientists and engineers have worked tirelessly to install the remaining mirror segments onto the telescope structure in the large cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The twelfth mirror was installed on 2 January 2016. The individual segments are placed on the telescope’s backplane using a robotic arm, guided by engineers. Each mirror segment measures just over 1.3 metres across and weighs approximately 40 kilograms. After being pieced together, the 18 primary mirror segments will work together as one large 6.5-metre mirror. The primary mirror will unfold and adjust to shape after launch using actuators on the back of each segment. The mirror segments are made of ultra-lightweight beryllium chosen for its thermal and mechanical properties at cryogenic temperatures. Since JWST will search for infrared light from the first stars and galaxies in the early Universe, the mirrors need to be cold, below -220 degrees C, to minimise any glow from the mirror itself. A thin gold film, chosen for its ability to reflect infrared light, coats each mirror. During the installation process, the mirrors are protected with black covers, as can be seen in this picture. The mirrors were built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colorado. Ball is the principal subcontractor to Northrop Grumman for the optical technology and lightweight mirror system. The installation of the mirrors onto the telescope structure is performed by Harris Corporation of Rochester, New York. Harris Corporation leads integration and testing for the telescope. The James Webb Space is an international project led by NASA with its partners, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency. Credit: NASA/C. Gunn

In this image, a Goddard Space Flight Center photographer is assembling a camera system inside the dynamic test chamber at the Center’s test and evaluation facilities. Thorough testing in facilities that simulate the space environment has become a hallmark at Goddard. After spending years on a single project, no scientist or engineer wants to lose a key instrument or an entire satellite because of a faulty component or electrical connection. As a result, developing thorough test and evaluation facilities and procedures has always remained a high priority.

Spotlight on Webb Telescope test

Dressed in a clean room suit, NASA photographer Desiree Stover shines a light on the Space Environment Simulator’s Integration Frame inside the thermal vacuum chamber at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Shortly after, the chamber was closed up and engineers used this frame to enclose and help cryogenic (cold) test the heart of the James Webb Space Telescope, the Integrated Science Instrument Module.

Image source: NASA