AeroAstro is poised to mark its return to space this October with the launch of Space Test Program Satellite-1 (STPSat-1), a small low-Earth-orbiting satellite the company built for the U.S. Air Force.

A trio of AeroAstro-built radio transponders were launched in March as part of NASA’s experimental Space Technology 5 mission, but is has been seven years since a wholly AeroAstro-built satellite has been launched into space. And that satellite, a $6 million science spacecraft called the Tomographic Experiment using Radiative Recombinative Ionospheric EUV [Extreme Ultra Violet] and Radio Sources, or TERRIERS, shut down shortly after reaching orbit, never to restart despite eight months of recovery efforts. TERRIERS was built for Boston University under NASA’s University Explorers Program.

More successful was the High Energy Transient Experiment 2, a NASA-funded satellite that was launched in 2000 and remains in service. While not built at AeroAstro, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology team drew heavily on AeroAstro-built spare hardware and designs from HETE-1, an AeroAstro spacecraft lost in a botched 1996 launch attempt.

AeroAstro was founded in 1988 by Rick Fleeter, a former Jet Propulsion Laboratory senior scientist and TRW engineer who started the company with a big belief in the value of tiny satellites. AeroAstro’s first satellite ‑‑‑‑ the Array of Low Energy X-ray Imaging Sensors, or Alexis ‑‑‑ was built for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The 115-kilogram satellite was launched in 1993 and operated for 12 years before being decommissioned in 2005. AeroAstro’s contract for the project was worth about $3.5 million.

STPSat-1, a 170-kilogram satellite slated to launch on board an Atlas 5 rocket this October along with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Orbital Express and four smaller payloads sponsored by the Air Force-managed Space Test Program, is currently undergoing environmental testing at the Naval Research Laboratory in nearby Washington. STPSat-1 is due to return to AeroAstro’s headquarters here for some final checkouts before being shipped to Cape Canaveral, Fla., in August.

AeroAstro’s STPSat-1 contract is worth more than $25 million and is the company’s largest contract to date, according to Patricia Davis, AeroAstro’s executive vice president and general manager for space. Davis said building STPSat-1 also helped set the stage for another Space Test Program contract the company was awarded in April to help Boulder, Colo.-based Ball Aerospace & Technolog ies Corp. build as many as six small satellites to host future space experiments. The so-called indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract has a potential total value of $110 million.

The Standard Interface Vehicle that AeroAstro will help build under the contract will be derived largely from the STPSat-1 design. Like STPSat-1, the Standard Interface Vehicle is intended to provide flexible accommodations for a variety of small payloads and ride into orbit on a secondary payload adapter known as an ESPA ring that was developed for the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 families of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles. The EELV Secondary Payload Adapter can accommodate up to six small satellites and will make its flight debut carrying STPSat-1 and four other small satellites.

Davis said winning the Standard Interface Vehicle contract along with teammate Ball solidifies AeroAstro’s role as “a pre-eminent ESPA-class satellite manufacturer.”

Flight opportunities for secondary payloads tend to be few and far between. But Davis said she sees that changing once the ESPA ring has a chance to prove itself this autumn on the Atlas 5 flight. She said she is optimistic that the Air Force will generate more flight opportunities for secondary payloads in the years ahead by manifesting ESPA rings on launches slated to carry military weather satellites and Global Positioning System satellites into orbit. “The message we are getting is that there are many more opportunities for ESPA ring-class payloads,” she said.

Davis said she also is encouraged by recent developments at NASA, which announced this spring that it was adding an ESPA-class payload to the planned 2008 launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

AeroAstro has grown considerably in the last several years. As recently as 1998, the company had only 10 to 12 employees. Today it has a staff of 70 and is looking to hire about a dozen more, Davis said.

In 2001, AeroAstro did $5.5 million in sales. In 2005, AeroAstro’s revenues hit $11.8 million and Davis said the company is on track to realize about $15 million in revenues this year.

Some of Aero Astro’s planned new hires will be based at an office the company recently opened in Albuquerque, N. M., to be closer to its Air Force customers at Kirtland Air Force Base. The new office also puts AeroAstro within easy reach of Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is currently funding the company’s work on spacecraft power scheduling software under a grant program aimed at small, innovative businesses.