Atlas V Delivers Picosats to Orbit

An Atlas V lifts off from Vandenberg AFB under gray skies on Thursday, Sept. 13. Photo courtesy United Launch Alliance, LLC

An Atlas V rocket lifted off from Vandenberg AFB on Thursday, Sept. 13, carrying a national security satellite as well as 11 CubeSat satellites. Three of them, each weighing 1.3 kg in a 1U form factor, were built by The Aerospace Corporation.

The rocket flew in the 401 vehicle configuration with a four-meter fairing, no solid rocket motors, and a single engine in the Centaur upper stage.

The launch, originally planned for June, was delayed multiple times for various reasons.

“On Thursday afternoon at 2:39 p.m. Pacific Time, we successfully launched Atlas V,” Ray Johnson, Aerospace vice president of Space Launch Operations, reported from Vandenberg. “The vehicle lifted off of Space Launch Complex 3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base right at the opening of the launch window. It was a very smooth countdown and flight with no significant issues.”

Johnson explained that “after deploying the primary satellite, there was a third burn of the Centaur upper stage, changing to a proper orbit for deploying 11 CubeSats from the aft bulkhead carrier that is mounted on the aft end of the Centaur. All CubeSats, including the three built by The Aerospace Corporation, were successfully deployed.”

Johnson added his congratulations and thanks to everyone involved “on this fantastic success.”

Two of the Aerospace CubeSats aboard the Atlas V were built for a national security agency. The third was built for the Space and Missile Systems Center/Development Planning Directorate (SMC/XR). SMC/XR builds, plans, and conducts demonstrations of new technologies and architectures that can be applied to the different SMC mission areas.

The SMC/XR AeroCube-4 is a 1U CubeSat (10 x 10 x 10 cm in dimension) that contains various “first of a kind” mission technologies, including solar panel wings that close and open to tune the ballistic coefficient enabling efficient formation flying, three-axis attitude control to 1 degree absolute accuracy, a 0.3-square-meter deployable deorbit device, sub-miniature reaction wheels, and a launch environment data logger that records ascent accelerations, pressure and temperature. Also for this mission, in order to efficiently manage three CubeSats in orbit at one time, a new three-node automated ground system network has been developed with antennas in California (The Aerospace Corporation, El Segundo), Texas (Texas A&M, College Station) and Florida (University of Florida, Gainesville).

SMC/XR satellites are pathfinders that demonstrate miniature satellite potential for all SMC programs. Past SMC/XR miniature satellites that have flown are MEPSI (2006), AeroCube-1 (2006), AeroCube-2 (2007), PSSCT-1 (2008), and PSSCT-2 (2011). Each showcased ever-increasing capability enabling SMC program offices to plan with confidence the use of miniature satellites in their specific mission area.

The term picosatellite refers to a miniature satellite that is approximately 1 kilogram in weight. A nanosatellite is larger and weighs approximately between 1 and 10 kg. A CubeSat is a picosatellite or nanosatellite that conforms to the CubeSat Standard of California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and is launched from a Poly-Picosatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD) — the predominant interface with all American launch vehicles. An AeroCube is a CubeSat specifically designed, developed, and built by The Aerospace Corporation.