One Rocket & 29 Satellites – A new launch record

Minotaur I launch 11.19.2013

ORS-3 Minotaur I launch 11.19.2013 (image: NASA/Chris Perry)

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.

For a complete list of satellites launched during the ORS-3 mission, refer to these related articles posted by and


An ISS CubeSat Laboratory – Your vote can help launch this idea to space

CASIS, the Center for the Advancement of Space in Science, is currently holding a contest on “Your Idea in Space: What Would You Send to the ISS?” HySpeed Computing submitted an entry to the contest for sending a user-configurable CubeSat Laboratory to the International Space Station. There are lots of other great ideas submitted to the contest and we encourage you to read through the various entries.

If you like our idea, then we’d appreciate your vote as well on any feedback on how to improve the concept. Voting is open from September 20 through October 4 and each voter can cast up to five votes. The contest is accessible here:

See below for a summary of our entry:

CASIS ISS contest

We would send a user-configurable CubeSat laboratory to the ISS that would allow on-demand creation and deployment of customized nanosatellites to address opportunistic and time-critical Earth observation tasks. This laboratory would have scientific, societal and commercial benefits. Key components of this laboratory include:

  • A space-qualified 3D printer for on-demand manufacture of the CubeSat framework.
  • A collection of pre-assembled Arduino components configured for different Earth observation tasks.
  • Communication through standard ISS channels to allow for user-customization.
  • Launch achieved via Japanese Experiment Module using the Small Satellite Orbital Deployer.
  • Satellites de-orbited so as not to contribute to space debris.

Earth observation is pervasive throughout our society, with important roles in both government and private sectors, including utilities, natural resources, agriculture and consumer product markets. The demand for this data also continues to grow, with many companies now looking to apply big-data analytics to Earth observing data for use in business enterprise. While there are numerous government and commercially operated Earth observing satellites currently in orbit, sensors are not always available, not always positioned appropriately and not always affordable for particular events and applications.

CubeSats offer a relatively low-cost option for addressing specific Earth observing needs, but are still limited by traditional launch requirements for achieving orbit. As an alternative, however, the ISS represents a space-based platform for CubeSat deployment, and as of the 2012 installation of the Small Satellite Orbital Deployer (SSOD) now has the capability for launching small satellites into Earth orbit via an airlock and robotic arm.

Arduinos, which consist of open-source electronic hardware, and 3D printers, which can generate three-dimensional objects based on a digital model, are both user-configurable technologies that can be applied to a host of different design and manufacture applications. Additionally, configuration does not require hands-on modification but can instead be implemented remotely through software.

Integrating these different concepts converges to a space-based CubeSat laboratory, which uses Arduino components and 3D printing to manufacture CubeSats that are deployed into Earth orbit from the ISS.

In addition to providing scientific and commercial benefits, the CubeSat laboratory would offer unique opportunities for educational initiatives, both with respect to creating the laboratory itself and the subsequent design, deployment and application of different CubeSat missions. This would also be a valuable resource for the entire Earth observing community.

For more information on CASIS:

The “White Stork” Makes a CubeSat Delivery – ISS receives four new micro-satellites


HTV-4 being docked with the ISS using Canadarm2 (courtesy: NASA)

Earlier this month on August 3, 2013 the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle-4 (HTV-4) was launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan. The HTV, nicknamed “Kounotori” (White Stork), is an unpiloted spacecraft used to resupply the International Space Station.

In addition to supplies and other research cargo, the recent HTV-4 mission included four new CubeSats:

  • Pico Dragon. This is a 1U CubeSat developed by the Vietnam National Satellite Center. Its mission is to acquire images of the Earth, collect space environment data, and test satellite communication systems.
  • Ardusat-1 and Ardusat-X. These are 1U CubeSats created by NanoSatisfi, with development partially funded through a crowdfunding campaign on KickStarter. The ArduSat satellites provide open-source Arduino platforms for users to control onboard instruments and perform their own space-based experiments.
  • TechEdSat-3. This is a 3U CubeSat collaboratively built by San Jose State University and the University of Idaho with guidance from NASA Ames Research Center. This satellite is being used to test exo-brake technology for passive de-orbiting of satellites and other payloads.

CubeSats offer a low-cost option for deploying and testing new space technologies and for encouraging research in space science. Given their small size – a 1U CubeSat is a 10cm cube – the satellites can be readily deployed as opportunistic payloads on larger missions. They can also be easily designed to burn up upon re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere, thus not contributing to the growing problem of space junk.

Using a procedure first tested last year, the CubeSats delivered by HTV-4 are first uploaded inside the ISS and later released from the Japanese Experiment Module via an airlock and robotic arm using the Small Satellite Orbital Deployer. This allows the CubeSats to be deployed directly from the ISS instead of using traditional launch vehicles, i.e., rockets.

As the deployment of micro-satellites becomes more and more cost-efficient and versatile, it’s no wonder we’re seeing an increasing prevalence of CubeSats. So think small and dream big.