Press Release

Small Satellites on a BIG Mission: Air Force Launches High-Tech NanoSats

By SpaceRef Editor
November 20, 2013
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LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, El Segundo, Calif . – In its 60 year history, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center has successfully launched some of the largest and most sophisticated satellites ever created.  On Tuesday, Nov. 19 at 8:15 p.m. EST, SMC charted a new trajectory by launching two small satellites into orbit from Wallops Island, Va., on the ORS-3 Enabler mission.  The Space Environmental NanoSatellite Experiment, SENSE, was led by SMC’s Development Planning Directorate.

In an era of limited fiscal resources, the SENSE mission is SMC’s latest demonstration of its commitment to delivering affordable and resilient space capabilities for the United States military.  Sponsored by the SMC Defense Weather Systems Directorate, the SENSE mission will collect data for characterizing Earth’s upper atmosphere.  The two SENSE satellites were developed by a small team of engineers at Boeing Phantom Works in Huntington Beach, Calif.  The satellites were designed to conform with the CalPoly CubeSat Design Specification, enabling low-cost launch opportunities for universities and research organizations to fly space experiments.

The sensors on the SENSE satellites were built by the Stanford Research Institute, the Naval Research Laboratory, and The Aerospace Corporation. Combined, the SENSE instrument suite provides an important demonstration for monitoring and forecasting changes in Earth’s ionosphere.  While unnoticeable to humans on the ground, the ever-changing ionosphere overhead can wreak havoc on radio transmissions both to and from space.  This can disrupt satellite-based communications and GPS signals that military and civilian users depend on.

In addition to its space weather mission, the SENSE program is also an acquisitions experiment.  The SENSE satellites were designed to be affordable and rapidly deployable.  The SENSE program invested significant effort to employ systems engineering processes selectively to minimize administrative burdens without compromising quality and mission assurance. The satellites leverage commercial-off-the-shelf electronics and open source standards to minimize research and development investments.  Further, the satellites do not use radiation-hardened components and have little redundancy.  These design trades will result in a shorter mission life, but they enable satellites like SENSE to be produced quickly, inexpensively, and in large quantities.  Moreover, this acquisitions model enables future generations of satellites to be more responsive to the rapid pace of innovation in the micro-electronics industry.

Beyond the SENSE satellites, the program’s ground system is also an innovative solution designed to provide substantial savings over the mission’s one- to three-year lifetime.  Known as the Common Ground Architecture, this command and control tool was developed by the Naval Research Laboratory.  This tool is highly automated and configurable so that it can fly many satellite missions with minimal operator oversight.  The SENSE ground and data processing system is being operated through partnerships with the SMC Space Development and Test Directorate, the SMC Infrared Systems Directorate, and the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate to fly future experimental space missions for the U.S. military.

In summary, the SENSE program is establishing an important precedent for future Air Force space acquisitions.  By implementing an agile acquisitions strategy using the CubeSat form factor, SENSE is a pathfinder to future low-cost space architectures for operational military applications. 

SpaceRef staff editor.