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Academy space fleet continues to grow

Cadet 1st Class Colby Kinsel of Cadet Squadron-18 cuts pieces for a display stand, which will support the FalconSAT-5 satellite for an upcoming event. Except for a few commercial off-the-shelf components, cadets create all parts of FalconSAT-5 in Academy labs like this. Photo by Dave Armer

Cadet 1st Class Colby Kinsel of Cadet Squadron-18 cuts pieces for a display stand, which will support the FalconSAT-5 satellite for an upcoming event. Except for a few commercial off-the-shelf components, cadets create all parts of FalconSAT-5 in Academy labs like this. Photo by Dave Armer

By John Van Winkle

Academy Public Affairs

The Academy’s space fleet grows even larger this year, with the launch of one satellite, continued operations of a second satellite and design work underway for a third.

The newest addition will be FalconSAT-6, which is on the drawing boards now.

The FalconSAT space fleet is a series of cadet-designed and cadet-built satellites, which carry scientific experiments in space to further military and academic research.

Satellite design, construction and operation is managed by the Department of Astronautics’ Small Satellite Research Center, while the experiments are obtained and managed by the Department of Physics’ Space Physics and Atmospheric Research Center.

The two centers sponsored a symposium here recently, to receive input from the space community to identify potential payloads, satellite technologies and mission concepts for the SSRC and SPARC.

Representatives from 27 separate military and civilian organizations presented their proposed scientific experiments in hopes of getting their experiment included in the scientific payload of FalconSAT-6. These included representatives from the Air Force Research Laboratory, NASA, MIT, Northrop Grumman, and Air Force Institute of Technology, as well as several American universities, space defense contractors and even Nanyang Technical University from Singapore.

The cadets are evaluating these presentations against a variety of criteria and are tasked with developing several satellite concepts for FalconSAT-6 using the best and most appropriate combinations of payloads. These satellite concepts will then be presented to several government agencies for funding decisions and to Space Test Program for manifest decisions on future launch opportunities. It is expected that FalconSAT-6 will be funded in the $5 to 10 million range and may have a launch opportunity in 2011 or 2012.

“This is a real opportunity for our cadets to develop as world-class space professionals,” Dean of the Faculty Brig. Gen. Dana Born, said to the symposium attendees. The general opened the FalconSAT-6 symposium with an overview of the FalconSAT program and key staff.

“This is the only accredited program where we have undergraduates build, launch and operate satellites. That doesn’t happen in any other satellite program in the United States,” said General Born. The program provides cadets the professional development opportunities, and understanding of the application of space power, as well as exercising their decision-making and critical thinking skills.

While the planning stages of FalconSAT-6 are well underway, work on the first physical FalconSAT-6 construct begins this fall, when a group of 30-plus senior cadets will be assembled to take a two-semester Astronautics capstone course to design and build the first model of FalconSAT-6.

The FalconSAT program is currently a three-year program cycle, based off the classic Russian approach to satellite design – build three satellites per mission: engineering model; qualification model; and, flight model.

“This approach gives each cadet class a significant deliverable and milestone every year with a plan of completing a new mission every three years, while allowing the cadets to experience ‘hands-on’ assembly, integration, and test,” said Lt. Col. Tim Lawrence, director of the Space Systems Research Center. “It reinforces the importance of documentation, since each cadet class must pass its work to the next class – approximately 30 senior class cadets take the course each year. Finally, it significantly reduces program risk by avoiding last-minute integration and testing issues which lead to scheduling and budget woes for many space programs.”

Meanwhile, work is underway to complete FalconSAT-5, and operations continue with FalconSAT-3.

But that leaves out FalconSAT-4. When the plans for FalconSAT-4 were racked and stacked with other space projects for funding, it turned out that funds would not be available until three to four years later … which would’ve put the Academy’s satellite program on hold for that amount of times. So the plans for FalconSAT-4 were then scrubbed, and new scientific experiments were added to the payload to create FalconSAT-5. That satellite was funded.

“FalconSAT-5 is the current satellite under construction here,” said Cadet 1st Class Tim Phillips, chief engineer for FalconSAT-5. “The basic objectives of FalconSAT-5 (scientific missions) are to characterize anomalies in space weather phenomena.”

The satellite measures in as a 60 by 69 by 96 centimeter cube with a mass of 160.7 kilograms, and cadets will the complete the flight model of FalconSAT-5 this semester.

“We expect to deliver the satellite for launch Oct. 1,” said Cadet Phillips.

Once the delivery is accepted, FalconSAT-5 will be one of several payloads prepped for a December launch, on the secondary payload adaptor of a Minotaur rocket. That rocket will be launched from the Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska.

Once FalconSAT-5 is placed into orbit, it will be operated by cadets in the Academy’s ground station, similar to what is being done today on FalconSAT-3.

Cadet crews from the cadet space operations squadron are currently operating FalconSAT-3, said Cadet 1st Class Sam Gay, chief engineer for FalconSAT-3.

That cadet-built satellite is a 120-pound, 18-inch cube which houses five scientific experiments and was launched March 8, 2007.

FalconSAT-3 completed 149 operational passes during the fall semester, not counting other passes used for software upgrades and remote maintenance, or when Academy winds are too high and hinder the ground antennas.

Cadet satellite operators handle three passes per weekday to download experimental data. FalconSAT-3’s experiments concentrate on space weather and satellite operations.

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