Talk about tiny technology. The NASA PhoneSat 2.4, which is set to launch today (Nov. 19), is so small that the satellite can easy fit in just one of your hands. The agency is quite excited about this second in the series of PhoneSat launches; the first, in April, saw three “smartphone satellites” working in orbit for a week.
PhoneSat is scheduled to launch as a hitchhiker aboard a rocket that will carry the U.S. Air Force Office of Responsive Space ORS-3 mission. The payloads will lift off from the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
“It’s tabletop technology,” stated Andrew Petro, program executive for small spacecraft technology at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
“The size of a PhoneSat makes a big difference. You don’t need a building, just a room. Everything you need to do becomes easier and more portable. The scale of things just makes everything, in many ways, easier. It really unleashes a lot of opportunity for innovation.”
PhoneSat will be at a higher altitude than its predecessors, NASA added, allowing controllers to gather information on the radiation environment to see how well vital electronics would be affected. In the long run, the agency hopes these tiny machines can be used for Earth science or communications, among other things.
“For example, work is already underway on the Edison Demonstration of Smallsat Networks (EDSN) mission,” NASA stated. “The EDSN effort consists of a loose formation of eight identical cubesats in orbit, each able to cross-link communicate with each other to perform space weather monitoring duties.”
The privately developed Antares rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corp. successfully blasted off on its maiden test flight from the shores of Virginia on April 21 at 5 p.m. EDT from Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Pad-0A at NASA Wallops – thereby inaugurating the new commercial space race and delivered a pioneering trio of low cost NASA Smartphone nanosatellites dubbed PhoneSat to orbit.
The 13 story Antares rocket pierced the chilly but cloudless clear blue Virginia skies as “the biggest, loudest and brightest rocket ever to launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility,” said former station astronaut and now Orbital Sciences manager Frank Culbertson.
Antares picture perfect liftoff marked the first step in a public/private collaboration between NASA and Orbital Sciences to restart cargo delivery services to the International Space Station (ISS) that were lost following the forced retirement of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters in 2011.
“Today’s successful test marks another significant milestone in NASA’s plan to rely on American companies to launch supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station, bringing this important work back to the United States where it belongs,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
The test flight was dubbed the A-One Test Launch Mission and also signified the first launch from Americas newest space port at Pad-0A.
The primary goal of this test flight – dubbed the A-One mission – was to test the fully integrated Antares rocket and boost a simulated version of the Cygnus cargo carrier – known as a mass simulator – into a target orbit of 250 x 300 kilometers and inclined 51.6 degrees.
Antares also lofted the trio of off-the-shelf-smartphone “PhoneSats” to orbit. The three picture taking satellites are named Alexander, Graham and Bell and could be the lowest-cost satellites ever flown in space.
“The Phonesats cost about $3500 each,” said Andrew Petro, NASA Small Satellite Program executive, to Universe Today. “They are deployed after separation.”
The goal of NASA’s PhoneSat mission is to determine whether a consumer-grade smartphone can be used as the main flight avionics of a capable satellite but at a fraction of the cost.
NASA reports that all three lithium battery powered nanosats are functioning and transmitting data to multiple ground stations.
Two of the cubesats are PhoneSat version 1.0 while the other is the more advanced PhoneSat version 2.0. They were developed by engineers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Calif.
Each square shaped smartphone measures about 4 inches (10 cm) per side, weighs about 4 pounds and is the size of a coffee mug. The smartphone serves as the cubesats onboard computer – see my photos.
The cameras will be used for Earth photography. Imaging data will be transmitted in chunks and then stitched together later.
The third time was the charm for Antares following a pair of launch scrubs due to a technical glitch in the final minutes of the initial countdown attempt on Wednesday, April 17 and unacceptable winds on Saturday, April 20.
The rocket flew on a southeasterly trajectory and was visible for about 4 minutes.
This test flight was inserted into the manifest to reduce risk and build confidence for the follow on missions which will fly the fully outfitted Cygnus resupply spacecraft that will dock at the ISS, starting as early as this summer.
The two stage Antares is a medium class rocket similar to the Delta II and SpaceX Falcon 9.
The dummy Cygnus payload was outfitted with instrumentation to collect aerodynamic data until separation from the 2nd stage. That marked the successful conclusion of the A-One mission and the end of all data transmissions.
It will fly in earth orbit for about two weeks or so until atmospheric friction causes the orbit to decay and a fiery reentry.
The Antares first stage is powered by dual liquid fueled AJ26 first stage rocket engines that generate a combined total thrust of some 750,000 lbs – original built in the Soviet Union as NK-33 model engines.
The upper stage features an ATK Castor 30 solid rocket motor with thrust vectoring. Antares can loft payloads weighing over 5000 kg to LEO. The 2nd stage will be upgraded starting with the 4th flight.
The Antares/Cygnus system was developed by Orbital Sciences Corp under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to replace the ISS cargo resupply capability previously tasked to NASA’s now retired Space Shuttle fleet.
Orbital’s Antares/Cygnus system is similar in scope to the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon system. Both firms won lucrative NASA contracts to deliver approximately 20,000 kilograms each of supplies and science equipment to the ISS.
The goal of NASA’s COTS initiative is to achieve safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation to and from the ISS and low-Earth orbit (LEO).
Orbital will launch at least eight Antares/Cygnus resupply missions to the ISS at a cost of $1.9 Billion
Known as Cubesats, several of these tiny but cost-effective payloads use off-the-shelf technology that you may currently carry in your pocket. In fact, engineers have put out a call for app designers to write programs for these tiny micro-satellites. Four of this new breed of satellites are part of the Antares A-One mission and another four are slated to launch tomorrow atop a Soyuz rocket from Plesetsk along with the Bion M-1 payload.
Yesterday’s launch of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket was scrubbed with minutes to go due to the premature retraction of an umbilical. Current plans call for a 48 hour turnaround with a new launch window opening Friday night on April 19th at 5:00 PM EDT/ 21:00 UT.
Cubesats are nothing new. As technology becomes miniaturized, so have the satellites that they’re contained in. Cubesats have even been deployed from the International Space Station.
The primary goal of the Antares A-One mission is to deploy a test mass into low Earth Orbit that simulates the Cygnus spacecraft. If all goes well, Cygnus is set to make its first flight to the ISS this summer.
But also onboard are the three unique payloads; the PhoneSat-1a, 1b & 1c cubesats and the Dove 1 cubesat.
As the name implies, the PhoneSat series of satellites are each constructed around a Nexus Smartphone and operate using Google’s very own Android operating system. The mission serves as NASA’s test bed for the concept. The phone system will monitor the orientation of the satellites. The PhoneSats will also use their off-the-shelf built-in cameras to take pictures of the Earth from orbit.
A separate watchdog circuit will reboot the phones if necessary. The PhoneSats are expected to last about a week in orbit until their batteries die. One of the PhoneSats is equipped with solar panels to test rechargeable technology for the platform.
Two of the nano satellites are built around a Samsung Nexus S and the other around a HTC Nexus Smartphone. The satellites will also use the SD card for info storage plus the 3-axis magnetometer and accelerometer incorporated into the phones for measurements and orientation.
Dove-1 will test a similar technology. It is built around a low-cost bus using off-the-shelf components. Each of the three PhoneSats cost less than $3,500 dollars U.S. to build.
Amateur radio operators will also be able to monitor the satellites as well. The PhoneSats will transmit at 437.425 MHz. Information will also available to track them in real time on the web once they’re deployed.
The two PhoneSat 1.0 satellites are dubbed Graham and Bell and will transmit every 28 and 30 seconds, and the one PhoneSat 2.0 satellite is named Alexandre and will transmit every 25 seconds.
The PhoneSat 2.0 series will also employ magnets that interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. A future application of this could include use of a PhoneSat for a possible heliophysics mission.
Although the Antares A-One mission is aiming to place the Cygnus test mass and the Cubesats in an inclination of 51.6° degrees similar to the ISS, it will not be following the ISS in its orbit and won’t present a hazard to the station.
The goal of NASA’s PhoneSat team based out of the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field California is to “release early and often.” Missions like Antares A-One present a unique opportunity for the teams to get “piggyback payloads” into orbit. To this end, NASA’s Cubesat Launch Initiative (CSLI) issues periodic calls for teams across the nation to make proposals and build tiny satellites.
Basic dimensions of a cubesat are 10x10x14 centimetres (for comparison, a CD jewel case is about 14×12 cm) and must weigh less than 1.33 kilograms for 1U, 2U & 3U variants. Up to 14kg is allowed for 6U models. Cubesats are deployed from a Poly-Picosatellite Deployer, or P-Pod.
Another set of cubesats is also slated to launch tomorrow from Plesetsk. The primary payload of the mission is deployment of the Bion M-1 biological research satellite. Bion M-1 will carry an assortment of organisms including lizards, mice and snails for a one month mission to study the effects of a long duration spaceflight on micro-organisms.
The Bion M-1 mission will also deploy the AIST microsatellite built by students of Samara Aerospace University, & BeeSats 2 & 3 provided by the Technical University of Berlin. A twin of the Dove-1 satellite launching on Antares named Dove-2 is also onboard.
One of the micro-satellites named OSSI-1 is of particular interest to backyard satellite trackers. Part of the Open Source Satellite Initiative, OSSI-1 was developed by radio amateur and artist Hojun Song. In addition to a Morse Code beacon, OSSI-1 will also contain a 44 watt optical LED beacon that will periodically be visible to observers on Earth.
Another similar project, FITSAT-1, has been tracked and imaged by observers in recent months. Follow the AmSat-UK website for predictions and visibility prospects of OSSI-1 after launch and deployment. FITSAT-1 has been visible with binoculars only, but OSSI-1 may just be visible to the unaided eye during shadow passes while it’s operational.
It will be interesting to watch these “home-brewed” projects take to orbit. The price tag and the technology is definitely within reach of a sufficiently motivated basement tinker or student team with an idea. Hey, how about the world’s first free-flying “Amateur Space Telescope?” Just throwing that out there!