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Air Force Academy Spirit

FalconSAT-5 receives main payload

Don Waite of the Space Systems Research Center and Pat O'Grady from InStar Engineering confirm FalconSAT-5's fit check with its main payload, the Space Plasma Characterization Source. Photo by Maj. Steve Hart

Don Waite of the Space Systems Research Center and Pat O

Department of Astronautics


The Air Force Academy’s newest cadet-built satellite, FalconSAT-5, is nearing completion in the Astronautics Laboratory here, highlighted by the Sept. 25 arrival of the satellite’s main payload, the Space Plasma Characterization Source.

When Space Plasma Characterization Source – better known as SPCS – integration is complete, FalconSAT-5 will begin a series of rigorous system tests before it is shipped to the Kodiak Launch Complex, Alaska, for a scheduled launch May 28, 2010.

“It’s great to see the satellite coming together in our lab,” said Col. Marty France, head of the Department of Astronautics. “More than 100 cadets and faculty members have put enormous effort into the program over the last three years. This is as real-world as it gets: the Air Force is counting on the FalconSAT team to deliver a satellite on schedule, capable of performing a very sophisticated mission and delivering important data to the Air Force Research Laboratory and our own research centers. We still have a lot of work ahead of us, too, before we get to launch and operations.”

While FalconSAT-5 “fit checking” was completed in the Astronautics Lab, cadets in the program provided the latest updates to the Space Test Program at their Payload Readiness Review Sept. 29. Cadets 1st Class Clark Beesemyer, Berkley Davis, Rex Pearce and Matt Lipscomb, accompanied by Space Systems Research Center director Lt. Col. Tim Lawrence, outlined test plans and delivery schedule for FalconSAT-5 with STP director Col. Stephen Hargis. Their plans were accepted, and the team earned praise for their hard work from the entire STP leadership.

“I am amazed by these cadets. I wish I had them working for me now,” said Colonel Hargis, the STP-S26 mission director and STP Systems Program Office director.

The SPCS payload was manufactured by Busek, Inc. of Natick, Mass. Busek is responsible for SPCS payload development, integration, test and delivery under an AFRL Small Business Innovative Research contract. The payload uses a 500-Watt Hall Effect thruster, propelled by one kilogram of xenon and ammonia cold gas to stimulate the space environment around the satellite and to also provide the ability for small orbital maneuvers. The Integrated Miniaturized Electrostatic Analyzer and Wafer Integrated Spectrometers payloads measure effects from the Hall Effect’s rocket plume on the surrounding space weather environment.

The $11-million FalconSAT-5 mission is sponsored by the AFRL, headquartered at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. Its mission is to perform space weather measurements with on-board sensors in collaboration with remote ground sites. The onboard payloads include the iMESA and WISPERS sensors, which measure low and high energy ion densities, an off-the-shelf plasma source (SPCS), and the Radio Frequency Signal Strength. This suite of experiments will measure the local ionosphere, stimulate the local space weather environment and measure the subsequent changes, and evaluate ionospheric effects on radio frequency signals for communication impacts.

FalconSAT-5 is a secondary payload on the STP’s S26 mission, scheduled for launch on an Orbital Sciences Minotaur IV – a modified Peacekeeper ICBM – on May 28, 2010. After launch, FalconSAT-5 will be monitored and controlled by cadet operators from the Michael W. Wynne Space Operations Center at the Air Force Academy.

Design work on FalconSAT-5 began almost three years ago while FalconSAT-3 was undergoing preparations for its March 2007 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Cadets with the Classes of 2007 through 2009 along with their faculty mentors from several academic departments and the Academy’s Space Systems Research Center and Space Physics and Atmospheric Research Center, completed key design, engineering, and prototype testing milestones in preparation for final construction and testing that began during the 2008-09 academic year. The Class of 2010 must complete assembly of the satellite and prepare for satellite system testing at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., and Edwards AFB, Calif., in coming months.

Building on more than a decade of experience designing, building, testing, launching, and operating small satellites, FalconSAT is one of the Academy’s capstone undergraduate systems engineering courses managed by the Department of Astronautics and the Space Systems Research Center. Realizing the department’s motto, “Learning Space by Doing Space,” a cadet team acts as the satellite system integrating contractor. The spacecraft bus, with all the supporting subsystems, is designed, built, and tested to meet the requirements of real-world Department of Defense payload and mission requirements.

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