NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center
Nano and Micro satellites built by students, businesses and research organizations can catch their own rides into space now that a California-based company is launching operational flights of a high-altitude rocket big enough to carry payloads high into the atmosphere.
Garvey Spacecraft Corp.'s Prospector 18 (P-18) has made four flights so far, including an operational mission last December that saw it carry a research payload for NASA's Ames Research Center and CalPoly. The Long Beach, Calif.-based company is using the P-18 as a pathfinder for building a larger model that can reach orbit.
The development is important for NASA because it gives satellite builders a chance to fly high altitude experiments before hitching a ride on a larger mission and rocket, said Garrett Skrobot of NASA's Launch Services Program who runs the CubeSat and Nanosat projects of the agency's ELaNa program, short for Educational Launch of Nanosatellites.
"Today, nanosat developers still depend on secondary ride opportunities to get to orbit," Skrobot said. "There are several operational issues with that approach. In response, with projects like this, we are taking the first steps with Garvey Spacecraft and other small launch vehicle developers to explore alternatives that could eventually lead to dedicated launch services that are tailored to the requirements of this market."
The High Altitude Launch Service contract paid for the December mission and another mission is scheduled to launch on June 15. This flight will test the CP9/StangSat payload, a spacecraft being built by Merritt Island High School, and CalPoly, a Rocket U experiment that is a product of Kennedy Space Center, another research payload from Ames and a new light weight nanosat carrier system.
The satellites in mind for the rocket are 4-inch squares that weigh about two pounds. Previously, they were carried inside a rectangular box fitted on larger rockets and sprung free into orbit once the main payload was deployed.
With a rocket fitted to the small satellite needs, though, more experiments and hardware can be flown at a lower cost. The rocket's flight profile can also be adjusted to meet specific needs of a research payload.