Aerospace PicoSats Fly Into History

by Lindsay Chaney
posted June 03, 2013

History came knocking for the Aerospace PicoSat program last December with a request from the Space Test Program (STP) at the Johnson Space Center in Houston: Could Aerospace provide a lifelike model of the PicoSat Solar Cell Testbed Satellite-2 (PSSCT-2) for the permanent space shuttle Atlantis display that was being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex?

The Aerospace Corporation’s PSSCT-2 was the 180th and final satellite launched by the space shuttle program, and seconds after it was launched, an onboard camera took the last picture of a shuttle in orbit.

David Hinkley, Geoff Maul, and Petras Karuza of the Mechanics Research Department accepted the task and constructed the model using spare parts from the original satellite build. The model was sent to STP in Houston on May 10 and was well received.

Between its launch from the Atlantis on July 20 to Dec. 8, 2011, when it naturally deorbited, the PSSCT-2 performed three experiments. First, it tested a new miniature GPS radio occultation sensor that measured the density of the ionosphere and the presence of scintillation. Ionospheric density structures and variability can adversely affect a variety of DOD systems including ground and satellite communications, over-the-horizon radar, and GPS navigation. Second, it characterized new, unflown solar cells by measuring their current and voltage curves. Third, PSSCT-2 carried four small solid rocket motors for the purpose of rapidly changing orbit altitude — PSSCT-2 was thereby the first picosatellite able to raise its orbit.

Model of the Aerospace PicoSat Solar Cell Testbed Satellite-2, which will be displayed with the space shuttle Atlantis. (Photo credit: The Aerospace Corporation.)

Model of the Aerospace PicoSat Solar Cell Testbed Satellite-2, which will be displayed with the space shuttle Atlantis. (Photo credit: The Aerospace Corporation.)

The PSSCT-2 model will be suspended next to the Atlantis and connected (for purposes of the display) to a Space Shuttle PicoSat Launcher (SSPL), the box that holds the PicoSat until it is time to launch the satellite. This is done by means of a hefty spring that pushes the satellite into space, away from the shuttle. In the display, the satellite will look like it is being launched from the Atlantis.