SAN FRANCISCO — As the U.S. Army prepares to launch a 15-kilogram nanosatellite designed to help soldiers survey nearby terrain, the spacecraft’s builder, Maryland Aerospace, is seeking new markets for its miniature satellite components.
When Steve Fujikawa founded Maryland Aerospace in 2002, his goal was to provide attitude determination and control systems for satellites of all sizes. He quickly realized, however, that government agencies, universities and companies were becoming increasingly interested in the potential applications of extremely small satellites. Those applications were limited, however, because the tiny spacecraft could not remain pointed in one direction, Fujikawa said. The first cubesats, which measure 10 centimeters on a side, had no attitude control. “They just tumbled,” Fujikawa said. “It became apparent that this was a market niche that was unfilled in which we could compete effectively as a small company.”
To address that market, Maryland Aerospace developed a three-axis miniature reaction wheel, the MAI-100. That product, which fills about three-quarters of the volume of a cubesat and weighs 865 grams, “allows satellites to precisely control their attitude and point a payload to a terrestrial or celestial target,” Fujikawa said.
The MAI-100 demonstrated that capability on two U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) CubeSat Experiments, known as QbX-1 and QbX-2, which were launched in December 2010 as secondary payloads on a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. () Falcon 9 rocket. QbX-1 and QbX-2, triple cubesats built by Pumpkin Inc. of San Francisco and provided to NRL by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), were designed to show that nanosatellites could be used to conduct experiments and demonstrate new technology. The pointing systems performed “flawlessly for 29 and 39 days respectively before re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere in January 2011,” according to a statement published at the time by Maryland Aerospace.
Top Official: Steve Fujikawa, president
Location: Crofton, Md.
Mission: Maryland Aerospace develops innovative and cost-effective satellites and space hardware specifically targeted at the burgeoning cubesat and nanosatellite markets in government and industry. The company endeavors to facilitate new initiatives by NASA and the U.S. Defense Department toward smaller, faster, cheaper development of space missions.
In 2008, Pumpkin began integrating the MAI-100 in its Miniature Imaging Spacecraft-2, built for NRO’s Colony 1 program, Pumpkin President Andrew Kalman said in a Jan. 16 email. “We’ve enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with Maryland Aerospace,” he added. In 2009, NRO purchased 12 Colony 1 triple cubesats from Pumpkin.
Maryland Aerospace continues to produce new attitude control modules, including the MAI-200 and MAI-400. With each successive model, the systems become more compact and capable, featuring higher-speed motors designed to handle larger spacecraft with greater agility and offer more precise attitude determination, Fujikawa said. The MAI-400 takes up approximately half the volume of a cubesat and is designed to serve as the pointing system for satellites comprising three or more cubesats.
Pumpkin is preparing to integrate the MAI-400 in its Colony 1 successor bus, Miniature Imaging Spacecraft-3, a triple cubesat the company plans to begin delivering to customers later this year, Kalman said.
In addition, Configurable Space Microsystems Innovation and Applications Center, a space electronics organization located at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, plans to use a version of the MAI-400 on a six-unit cubesat scheduled for launch later this year onboard the fourth U.S. Air Force Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) mission, ORS spokeswoman Valerie Skarupa, said in a Jan. 22 email. The MAI-400 designed for the ORS mission is configured as a magnetic attitude control system. It will prevent a spacecraft from tumbling, but does not offer a precision pointing capability, Fujikawa said.
“The MAI-400 is available in many configurations,” Fujikawa said. “The most sophisticated configurations have three axis reaction wheels, three electromagnets and an attitude determination and control computer to precisely determine attitude and point the spacecraft within a fraction of a degree.” Simpler magnetic systems are a good alternative for customers with limited budgets and missions that do not require precise pointing, he added.
Maryland Aerospace has sold about 40 attitude determination and control modules to universities, government organizations and commercial customers in the United States and internationally. Each unit costs between $15,000 and $60,000, Fujikawa said.
In recent years, Maryland Aerospace has expanded its line of products to include electrical power, data handling and command and control systems for nanosatellites. Still, the company had never built a complete satellite until Kestrel Eye. That effort began in 2005 when Maryland Aerospace won a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to design an attitude control system for a tactical imaging satellite. Once that project finished, DARPA gave the company seed money to begin developing Kestrel Eye, an electro-optical imaging satellite designed to produce 1.5-meter resolution imagery.
The Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command in Huntsville, Ala., took over the project in 2009. “From a functional viewpoint, [Kestrel Eye’s] benefits to the warfighter might be thought of as similar to those of a ‘high flying UAV’ in providing near real time situational or battlespace awareness,” Army spokesman John H. Cummings III said Jan. 15 in an emailed response to questions.
The U.S. Air Force Space Test Program is preparing to launch Kestrel Eye using a commercial rideshare contract with Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. Spaceflight and SpaceX have not yet determined the launch date for Kestrel Eye, Curt Blake, Spaceflight senior vice president, said in a Jan. 21 email.
Before establishing Maryland Aerospace, Fujikawa worked with partners to found Applied Systems Engineering, which was later renamed IntelliTech Microsystems Inc. That company built an attitude control and determination module for the international space station under an NRL contract. The module was designed to serve as a backup for the primary attitude control system being developed by NASA’s Russian partners, Fujikawa said. In the end, the Russian module worked well and the backup was not used. Nevertheless, the project provided valuable experience. “It gave us confidence that we could work effectively with our federal customers and sustain a viable business,” Fujikawa said.