Air Force cubesat successfully deployed from Atlas 5 upper stage

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On the way to its target orbit, the Atlas’ Centaur upper stage rocket released a cubesat that was riding as a secondary payload.

WASHINGTON — The Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF-5) communications satellite reached orbit on Thursday after it successfully separated from a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket approximately 5 hours and 40 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

On the way to its target orbit, the Atlas’ Centaur upper stage rocket released a cubesat that was riding as a secondary payload. “The mission is complete and successful,” said ULA spokeswoman Heather McFarland.

This was the first time the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center designed a mission where the rideshare payload separated prior to the anchor mission. SMC’s cubesat will be used to test orbital debris tracking technologies.

The engineering work to prepare the 12U cubesat to ride on the Centaur’s aft bulkhead carrier was done by Parsons as part of a five-year $100 million contract SMC awarded the company to serve as “launch manifest systems integrator.” Parsons leads a team that includes Adaptive Launch Solutions, Tyvak Nanosatellite Solutions and Moog.

Under the contract, Parsons is responsible for “manifest development, assembly, mission integration and technical analysis,” Carey Smith, Parsons’ chief operating officer, told SpaceNews. “The vehicle manufacturer does the actual connection,” she said.

It took the company about seven months from the time it was assigned the payload to get it ready for launch. As part of the SMC contract, Parsons can integrate payloads with any launch vehicle and uses six different types of multi-manifest carriers. Its next mission will be to integrate a secondary payload for the Atlas 5 launch of Landsat 9, a NASA Earth observation satellite projected to launch in December 2020.

It is up to SMC to determine if or where a secondary payload rides in any mission. “They decide where it goes, where the available margin is,” Smith said. “We help them with the configuration for how they would attach it.” For the AEHF-5 mission it was on the upper stage. It could also attach to the payload fairing where the primary sits on top of the secondary payload.

“We believe you’re going to see many more of these,” said Smith. “You could theoretically imagine multi-manifests going up with nearly every launch to take advantage of the available capacity.”