Small Satellites Flood Space this Week


The number of satellites in low earth orbit (LEO) got a dramatic boost this week with two separate launches from the U.S. and Russia adding a total of 61 new objects to the books. Historians may mark this as the time when small satellites came into their own.

On November 19, Orbital Sciences Corporation launched a Minotaur I rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Eastern Virginia.  The primary payload for the launch was ORS-3, a U.S. Air Force space weather satellite weighing in at roughly 400 pounds and described by builder Ball Aerospace as "about the size of a dorm refrigerator." 

Accompanying ORS-3 were 28 CubeSats of different sizes, sponsored by NASA's ELana (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) program plus the U.S. Air Force's Space Test Program and Operationally Responsive Space Office (ORS).  

NASA was responsible for 11 of the CubeSats, with a number of participating universities and Thomas Jefferson High School building satellites as small as a 10 centimeter cube for launch.

A CubeSat, by its very compact nature, is extremely cheap and easy to build compared to hundred million dollar communications satellites designed for 10 to 15 year lifetimes in orbit.  The CubeSats put up on the ORS-3 flight are expected to stay in LEO for one to four years before they safely burn up in Earth's atmosphere, making them as disposable as cell phones.

 The University of Alabama Huntsville Space Hardware Club spent a total of $50,000 dollars to build its 1U ChargerSat-1, with only $3,000 of the cost attributed to parts and materials.  Orbital Sciences Corporation sponsored and mentored high school students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology of Alexandria, Virginia to build TJ3Sat,a simple CubeSat designed to let students and amateur radio operators send and receive data to the satellite.

ORS-3's launch held the "world record" for total satellites put into orbit for less than two days.  A Russian Dnepr rocket carried 32 satellites into orbit on November 21, including a 660 pound imaging satellite for Dubai, a 300 pound South Korean research satellite, and a number of smaller commercial small satellites from North America.

DubaiSat-2, developed by South Korea's SATREC initiative, delivers imagery with a resolution between 1 to 4 meters in single color, RGB, and near-infrared, with data downlinked via X-band at a rate of 160 Mbps.

Silicon Valley smallsat startups Skybox Imaging and Planet Labs both put satellites into orbit onboard the Russian launch.  SkySat-1 weighs in at around 200 lbs and is expected to delivery imagery at a resolution of one meter. Skybox will launch a second imaging satellite later this year and plans to put up a constellation of 24 satellites to support its business.

Planet Labs Dove-3 and Dove-4 are 3U CubeSat weighing in at 4.5 kilograms and will provide Earth imagery at resolutions of up to three meters. The two satellites are technology demonstrators/precursors to the "Flock" of 24 CubeSats Planet intends to launch in the near future to cover the globe.

One of the comparison/contrasts between the two mass launches this week are the rockets used.  Orbital's Minotaur I uses two surplus Minuteman ICBM stages while the Russian Dnepr is a surplus ICBM, so you have a swords to plowshares theme going on.  On the other side of the coin, the U.S. government currently limits use of surplus Minuteman stages to government-sponsored flights while the Russians are happy to sell a ride space to all comers, including U.S. commercial interests.

Orbital would like the U.S. government to allow the use of surplus Minuteman stages for commercial flights, enabling the company to quickly compete in the growing small satellite launch business.  Otherwise, U.S. small satellite companies will continue to take their launch business overseas to Russia.

Edited by Cassandra Tucker

Contributing Editor

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