SpaceX Falcon 9 launches SSO-A multi-sat mission

by William Graham

Spacecraft Overview:

The sixty-four satellites make up the SSO-A mission and come from 34 different operators across 17 countries plus the European Space Agency. These include the first satellite for the Kingdom of Jordan, as well as spacecraft from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Germany, India, Italy, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States. The payloads are attached to the rocket via a three-tier deployment mechanism that was developed by Spaceflight Incorporated, and which includes two free-flying elements and a multi-payload carrier attached to Falcon 9’s second stage.

The upper free-flyer carries most of the satellites and will be the first part of the SSO-A mission to separate. This will be responsible for deploying its payloads at the appropriate time. The lower free-flyer is attached underneath the upper section, and will separate later, while four of the larger satellites will be deployed from the second stage via the multi-payload carrier. The upper free-flier incorporates an EELV Secondary Payload Adaptor (ESPA) as well as additional stack and hub sections.

Spaceflight render of the payloads ahead during launch

The 40-kilogram (88 lb) European Student Earth Explorer (ESEO) is a project led by the European Space Agency (ESA). The ESEO satellite was built by Italy’s ALMASpace incorporating systems and experiments developed by students from participating universities across Europe. ESEO carries a three-axis dosimeter and a Langmuir probe to study radiation in the space environment, and a camera to return images from space. The satellite is also equipped with technology demonstration experiments and an amateur radio transponder, FUNcube-4, provided by AMSAT UK. ESEO is expected to operate for at least six months, and at the end of its mission the satellite will deploy a drag sail to demonstrate this technique for speeding up the decay of satellites from orbit.

Eu:CROPIS, which will be flown by the German Aerospace Centre, DLR, is a 250-kilogram bioscience satellite. By controlling its rate of rotation, the satellite will be able to simulate levels of gravity on the Moon or Mars. The satellite carries two greenhouses that will be used sequentially to investigate how tomato plants grow in these differing conditions. Each part of the investigation will last six months.

The NEXTSat-1 spacecraft was developed by the Korea Advanced Institute of Space Technology (KAIST) and its Satellite Technology Research Centre (SATREC) division, as a prototype for a new satellite bus to support future missions. NEXTSat-1 carries two scientific instruments: the Instrument for the Study of Space Storms (ISSS) will measure particle flux and changes in plasma density as the result of space weather, while the NIR Imaging Spectrometer for Star Formation History (NISS) will perform an astronomy mission with a near-infrared spectrometer; however the satellite’s primary objective is one of technology demonstration.

Kazakhstan’s KazSTSAT is an Earth imaging mission operated by JV Ghalam LLP. The 105-kilogram (231-pound) satellite was constructed by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), based around the SSTL-42 bus, and carries a SLIM-6 imaging payload. This is able to photograph the Earth’s surface at resolutions of up to 18.7 meters (61.4 feet). Two more imaging payloads aboard SSO-A are SkySat 14 and SkySat 15, operated by Planet Labs.
These 120-kilogram (260 lb) satellites carry high-resolution panchromatic imaging payloads to produce still images at resolutions of up to 86 centimeters (2.8 feet), and short videos from orbit. Planet Labs also has three CubeSats aboard this launch: the Flock-3s spacecraft will join hundreds of similar Dove satellites in orbit to produce near-real-time pictures of the surface.

Capella 1, also known as SpaceCap, is the first satellite for California-based Capella Space. It is a prototype radar imaging satellite equipped with X-band synthetic aperture radar which will make use of a deployable antenna to produce high-resolution images of the Earth in all weather. The satellite is the precursor to a planned constellation of up to 36 satellites, ensuring regular imaging of any given location on the planet’s surface. Finland’s ICEYE-X2 has a similar mission, serving as a precursor to ICEYE’s planned constellation of X-band satellites. ICEYE-X2 follows on from ICEYE-X1, which was launched in January, and offers an increased imaging resolution.

Global 2 is a demonstration mission for BlackSky Global, an American company aiming to deploy a constellation of sixty imaging satellites into low Earth orbit. This is BlackSky’s second launch of the week, following the deployment of their Global 1 satellite by India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) on Thursday. Global 2’s imaging system, SpaceView-24, was developed by Exelis and incorporates a 24-centimeter (9.4-inch) diameter telescope that will be used to produce images of the Earth’s surface at resolutions of up to 90 centimeters (35 inches). The Global satellites are constructed by Spaceflight Services using its SCOUT bus and have masses of 56 kilograms (123 lb) with a design life of least three years.

Three Hawk satellites – Hawk A, B and C – will be operated by US firm HawkEye 360 and are also prototypes for a planned larger constellation. These satellites will monitor radio signals from aircraft, ships and land-based transportation, allowing governments and commercial operators to see the status of their transportation networks and allowing emergency signals to be detected and relayed to rescue services.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), in association with NovaWurks, will operate the Experiment for Cellular Integration Technologies (eXCITe). Also known as Payload Test Bed 1 (PTB-1), eXCITe is a demonstrator for NovaWurks’ satlets, a concept for a modular satellite architecture with integrated units that can be integrated to perform a mission. The 155-kilogram (342-pound) satellite also carries an amateur radio transponder and will deploy a subsatellite during its mission. The subsatellite, Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe), is a prototype for a new type of reconnaissance satellite that would operate in a large constellation, providing near-real-time tactical capabilities to military units in the field.

FalconSAT-6 is another experimental satellite for the US military, part of the US Air Force Academy and Air Force Research Laboratory’s FalconSAT series of demonstration missions. The 181-kilogram (399-pound) satellite will test an off-the-shelf Hall Effect Thruster in space, completing a research objective that could not be fulfilled by the previous FalconSAT-5 mission after it suffered a power system failure in orbit, and will also attempt to detect any contamination of the spacecraft that may occur when the thruster fires. FalconSAT-6 also carries space situational awareness, solar array technology and ionospheric experiments. It is the second time SpaceX has launched a FalconSAT spacecraft: FalconSAT-2 was the payload for the company’s first ever launch in 2006, but the Falcon 1 rocket failed to place it into orbit.

STPSat-5 carries technology demonstration payloads for the US Department of Defense’s Space Test Program. Based around Sierra Nevada Corporation’s SN-50 bus, STPat-5 carries experiments developed by the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, the Air Force Academy and the Air Force and Naval Research Laboratories.

The remaining satellites, including the three Flock-3s spacecraft, are CubeSats. These are built to a set of standard cuboidal form factors based around ten-centimetre (3.9-inch) cubes, or “units”. A single-unit CubeSat measures ten centimeters on each side, while a two-unit CubeSat, for example, measures 10 by 10 by 20 centimeters. The three Flock-3s satellites conform to the three-unit standard, with a long axis of 30 centimeters (11.8 inches).

JY1-Sat is a single-unit CubeSat which will be the first satellite for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The satellite carries an amateur radio payload furnished by the Royal Jordanian Amateur Radio Society, as well as an imaging system.

Other satellites aboard the SSO-A mission include Orbital Reflector, a three-unit CubeSat funded by the Nevada Museum of Art. The satellite is intended to be a piece of “space art”, deploying a 30-meter (98-foot) inflatable reflective structure to allow it to be seen from Earth with the naked eye. Another artistic payload is Enoch, which was funded by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

This consists of a canopic jar featuring the bust of Robert Henry Lawrence Jr, the first African-American to be selected as an astronaut. Lawrence, who was selected for the US Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) programme, never got to fly in space as he was killed in a plane crash in 1967. The canopic jar, which is made of 24-karat gold, is attached to a sled built to the three-unit CubeSat form factor.

Several satellites aboard this launch will be used to test communications for planned constellations of satellites to connect Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

These include three SpaceBEE one-unit CubeSats, developed by Swarm Technologies, the six-unit Hiber 2 for Dutch company Hiber Global, the three-unit Centauri 2 which is being flown for Australia’s Fleet Space Technologies, Astrocast 0.1 for Switzerland’s Astrocast SA and Sirion Pathfinder 2 for US operator Sirion Global. Both the Hiber and Centauri satellites will join spacecraft already in orbit which were deployed by Thursday’s PSLV launch from India.

HiberOne and HiberTwo satellites – via Hiber

Two six-unit CubeSats make up the Polar Scout mission for the US military’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office. A partnership between ORS, the US Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security, these spacecraft will detect and relay emergency beacon signals from vessels operating in the Arctic Ocean. This will help the US Government to coordinate search and rescue efforts for sailors in distress. Filings with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ahead of the SSO-A mission also indicated the presence of additional US Government CubeSats aboard the launch, however their identity and purpose are currently undisclosed.

AISTECHSAT-2 is being flown for Spain’s AISTech. A six-unit CubeSat it will serve as a prototype for a future constellation of satellites to track aircraft and ships, using AIS and ADS-B receivers to pick up tracking and identification signals as well as an infrared thermal imaging system. The satellite’s thermal imaging capabilities will also allow it to assist with agricultural and land management.

The University of Colorado at Boulder will fly the Compact Spectral Irradiance Monitor Flight Demonstration (CSIM-FD), a six-unit CubeSat to investigate how changes in solar irradiance – or the amount of power the Earth receives from the sun – affects the planet’s climate. The same university’s Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer 2 (MinXSS-2) will use a three-unit CubeSat to study solar flares and activity. The University of North Carolina’s SeaHawk-1 is a precursor to a project aimed at mapping the color of the Earth’s oceans.

The Georgia Institute of Technology’s Ranging and Nanosatellite Guidance Experiment (RANGE) consists of two 1.5-unit CubeSats which will test formation flying and positioning techniques in orbit.

Audacy 0 will serve as a demonstrator for a planned constellation of low orbit communications satellites for US operator Audacy. Built by Scottish company Clyde Space, the three-unit CubeSat carries K and Ka-band communications payloads, as well as an experimental optical communications system and a small camera. The US Navy’s Integrated Communications Extension Capability (ICE-Cap) is another three-unit CubeSat which will test the ability of small spacecraft to act as a relay for the Navy’s geostationary Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellites, providing communications to users at high latitudes who would normally be unable to use geostationary communications.

Additional six-unit CubeSats include BlackHawk for US operator Blue Canyon Technologies, Brazil’s ITASAT-1 which will test imaging, data collection and navigation systems, Landmapper BC4 (formerly Corvus BC4) which will carry out a multispectral imaging mission for US operator Astro Digital and ROSE-1, which is expected to test radio frequency thrusters, a type of plasma propulsion, for American company Phase Four.

Other CubeSats include BRIO and THEA, for Virginia-based SpaceQuest: BRIO will test a new radio transceiver and associated software in orbit while THEA will test an instrument intended to survey the radio spectrum. Italy’s OHB Italia is flying Eaglet 1, which carries 30-centimeter (11.8-inch) telescope for Earth imaging as well as an AIS receiver. VESTA will demonstrate communications systems for Canadian operator exactEarth. Hamilton 1 carries several technology demonstration payloads for Kubos Corporation of the United States.

Irvine 02 is a single-unit CubeSat funded by the Irvine Public School Foundation.

The satellite, which was developed by high school students, will test an electric propulsion system. WeissSat is another student-built satellite which is being flown for Florida’s Weiss School, and will test a chip-based laboratory concept in space as well as performing bioscience research.

Several South Korean satellites are part of SSO-A, including the K2SAT imaging and voice relay experiment, SNUSAT-2 disaster management satellite, SNUGLITE amateur radio mission and VisionCube, which will research transient luminous events (TLEs) in Earth’s atmosphere. India’s ExseedSat-1, Kazakhstan’s KazSciSat, Thailand’s KNACKSAT, Germany’s MOVE-2, Poland’s PW-Sat-2, Finland’s Suomi-100 and the RAAF M1 satellite for the Royal Australian Air Force are also aboard the rocket, as is Fox-1C for amateur radio consortium AMSAT.

Elysium-Star 2 carries samples of cremated human remains aboard a single-unit CubeSat in a space burial service.

The launch was set to launch on Sunday before SpaceX opted to move to the backup date.

Had this mission launched on Sunday, it would have been the one hundredth orbital launch of 2018, the first time such milestone has been reached since 1990. Instead, due to the delay to Monday, Soyuz FG gained that 100th milestone honor.

Falcon 9 has contributed eighteen launches – including that of SSO-A – to this total, while SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which is based on the Falcon 9, also made its first flight this year.

SpaceX will be in action again on Tuesday, with another Falcon 9 due to lift off on Tuesday with the Dragon CRS-16 resupply mission for the International Space Station. Another launch scheduled before the end of the month will deploy the first Block III satellite for the US Air Force’s Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation network.

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