On Nov. 19, in a specular nighttime launch, a U.S. Air Force Minotaur I rocket was launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility and into the history books. With 29 satellites onboard, this mission set a new record for total number of satellites launched on a single rocket.
Referred to as the U.S. Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space Office ORS-3 mission, this launch not only sets a record, but more importantly, is also enabling significant amounts of space and satellite related research to be conducted using the 29 satellites. Appropriately, the Air Force thus also refers to this launch as an enabler mission.
The primary payload onboard the Minotaur I rocket was the U.S. Air Force’s STPSat-3 (Space Test Program Satellite-3), which will support a variety of research experiments related to satellite operations and measuring the space environment. This includes, among others, experiments to characterize the Earth’s ionosphere and thermosphere, measure plasma densities and energies, and monitor total solar incident irradiance, as well as a specialized module to assist with satellite de-orbiting at the conclusion of its operating lifetime.
In addition to the STPSat-3 satellite, the ORS-3 mission included 28 CubeSats contributed by numerous organizations, including NASA, universities, and even a high school. Here’s a list of a few of the different CubeSats launched in this record-breaking mission.
- TJ3Sat: (Thomas Jefferson High School) This is the first ever satellite designed and built by high school students. Its mission is to engage students in space science and provide educational resources for other K-12 institutions to build their own satellites. The satellite itself is designed to allow users to upload approved text messages, convert the texts to voice signals, and then relay these audio messages back to Earth over an amateur radio frequency.
- KySAT-2: (Kentucky Space Consortium) In a show of determination after the rocket carrying KySat-1 failed to achieve orbit back in 2011, students at the University of Kentucky and Morehead University persevered to design and build KySat-2. This satellite includes a digital camera, temperature sensor, and stellar gyroscope, as well as communication systems to receive commands and transmit data and photos to the ground station.
- Firefly: (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center) This satellite will be used to investigate links between lightning and terrestrial gamma ray flashes, exploring what initiates lightning and what effects it has on the atmosphere.
- COPPER: (St. Louis University) Testing a commercial off-the-shelf infrared imager, this satellite is examining the instrument’s suitability for Earth observation and space situational awareness.
- DragonSat-1: (Drexel University and U.S. Naval Academy) This satellite is being used to acquire images of the northern and southern lights and also demonstrate deployment of a gravity gradient boom for passive attitude stabilization.
- PhoneSat 2.4: (NASA Ames Research Center) This is a follow-on to NASA’s previous PhoneSat mission, which launched three CubeSats earlier in 2013, and is being used to further demonstrate the cost-effectiveness and utility of using low-cost smartphones for satellite operation.
With the surge in popularity of CubeSats, and their relative ease of deployment, it’s an exciting time to be involved in space research and operations. A new era of space science has arrived, and era in which satellite access is more available to more people than ever before.
So get out there and see how you can participate. Maybe you too can soon launch your own satellite.