SAN FRANCISCO — In early September, Altius Space Machines executives plan to meet with NASA officials at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to discuss the firm’s proposal to use one of the space agency’s commercial cargo vehicles to launch small satellites after it delivers supplies to astronauts and picks up the trash.
Altius engineers have designed the new payload carrier, called HatchBasket, to fit in the hatchway of Orbital Sciences Corp.’s enhanced Cygnus cargo module and take advantage of fuel remaining in the unmanned cargo ship to boost the capsule to an altitude of approximately 500 kilometers where HatchBasket would expel its complement of satellites.
Satellites launched at that altitude are likely to remain in orbit without onboard propulsion systems for two to three years. In comparison, the anticipated lifespan for cubesats released from the space station, which travels at an altitude of roughly 350 kilometers from Earth, is six to 12 months, said Jonathan Goff, president and chief executive of Louisville, Colorado-based Altius.
It is not yet clear how many satellites HatchBasket would carry, because Altius and NASA officials are continuing to discuss how large the payload carrier should be, said William Bolton, vice president for marketing and sales.
A preliminary version of HatchBasket exhibited at Utah State University’s annual Small Satellite conference in August was large enough to hold 40 three-unit cubesats, which are roughly the size of a loaf of bread and weigh 3 to 4 kilograms, as well as two much larger satellites around 180 kilograms. Now it appears more likely that HatchBasket will hold one or two 50-kilogram satellites in addition to a number of cubesats that has not yet been determined, Bolton said.
Altius is working closely on its HatchBasket concept with Houston-based NanoRacks, a firm that helps customers conduct research on the international space station and launch cubesats from the station’s Kibo module. NanoRacks plans to help Altius market HatchBasket in addition to integrating and manifesting payloads.
“HatchBasket expands the number of opportunities available for small satellites because it allows them not only to deploy from a higher altitude than the international space station but also to be larger than the ones NanoRacks currently sends through the Kibo module’s airlock,” said Richard Pournelle, NanoRacks senior vice president of business development. “It allows us to use the space station and Cygnus in creative ways to do more research and business in space.”
HatchBasket is designed to make use of the additional cargo room of Orbital’s Cygnus Enhanced Pressurized Cargo Module, a larger version of the spacecraft that has made two successful trips to the space station since it began ferrying supplies in January. The enhanced Cygnus, which is scheduled to make its debut in 2015, is designed to hold 2,700 kilograms compared with 2,000 kilograms in the original capsule. Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski did not respond to requests for comments on the HatchBasket concept.
In addition to extending the orbital life of small satellites, HatchBasket includes a number of features designed to appeal to customers seeking to observe or monitor their payloads in space or to establish small-satellite constellations. Without onboard propulsion, cubesats use differential drag to create constellations of evenly space satellites. “We could deploy satellites in an evenly spaced constellation to begin with,” Bolton said.
Altius also could use sensors and cameras mounted on the front bulkhead of the cargo vehicle to gather imagery and data on satellites or on experiments that never leave Cygnus. In another possible scenario, the cargo vehicle would act like a chase plane, following a single satellite as it deploys solar arrays or tests propulsion systems, or monitoring multiple satellites performing docking or proximity operations.
“These services are not designed for high school cubesats,” Bolton said. They are designed for researchers, businesses or government customers who want their small satellites to remain in orbit for a couple of years or who have unique requirements, he added.
Altius officials have not yet determined the price customers would pay for HatchBasket services. They do, however, describe some of its merits, including a smooth ride into orbit.
Altius plans to pack cubesats and small satellites into HatchBasket and send it to the space station in the pressurized cargo carrier, reducing the vibration and thermal extremes payloads would encounter on the journey. Once Cygnus docks with the station, astronauts would unload cargo, fill the capsule with trash and move HatchBasket into position for its mission. After HatchBasket finishes launching satellites or testing payloads, Cygnus would proceed to its traditional route: burning up in atmospheric re-entry.