First Booz Allen Satellite Will Observe Air Force Laser

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Booz Allen Hamilton, a management consulting firm better known for pushing paper than building hardware, is launching a tiny satellite from the International Space Station this summer that could help the U.S. Air Force clear the air about a laser the service uses to calibrate one of its ground-based telescopes.

Booz Allen’s Centennial-1, a single-unit cubesat measuring only 10 centimeters on a side, is the first spacecraft the 100-year-old company has ever built, Nick Pappageorge, a Booz Allen spacecraft engineer, told SpaceNews April 15 at the National Space Symposium here.

The cubesat will operate in a 420-kilometer orbit inclined at 51.65 degrees, according to the commercial remote sensing license McLean, Virginia-based Booz Allen received from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in January.

From that orbit, Centennial-1’s Air Force-designed photon detector will track a sodium guide star laser beamed into space from Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. The laser helps calibrate the adaptive optics of a 3.5-meter-diameter ground telescope located at the service’s Starfire Optical Range, which the Air Force uses for keeping tabs on spacecraft, debris and anything else that happens to be orbiting Earth.

Centennial-1 cubesat
Centennial-1 cubesat. Credit: Booz Allen Hamilton

Centennial-1 “will allow the Air Force, using an unclassified hardware platform, to collect data on this guidestar laser,” Pappageorge said. “We’re going to be able to provide them with data they can publish about the capability of the laser and the fact that it isn’t a danger to satellites.”

Like all ground-based telescopes, the Air Force’s observatory must somehow compensate for the light-distorting effects of Earth’s atmosphere. That is where the sodium guide star laser the Air Force built with help from Boeing Defense, Space and Security comes in. The laser, deployed in 2012, bounces light off sodium atoms in the upper atmosphere, creating a bright, artificial star that lets the Air Force clearly detect, and thereby compensate for, atmospheric distortion.

Air Force spokeswoman Marie Vanover did not reply to a request for comment.

Booz Allen built Centennial-1 because the consulting giant is considering expanding into light manufacturing, Brian Gunderson, the company’s Centennial-1 program manager, said in an April 22 interview.

Cubesats caught Booz Allen’s attention, especially the Dove Earth-imaging satellites San Francisco-based Planet Labs has been launching in droves from the International Space Station. Gunderson said the images Planet Labs has collected convinced Booz Allen there is indeed a growing market for small satellites.

So in early 2014, Booz Allen knew it wanted to build a satellite but needed a mission. The first customer the company found for a cheap, quick mission was the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), which was looking for a way to talk publicly about the laser at Kirtland, and test the photosensitive payload Centennial-1 will host, Gunderson said.

Negotiations on unfunded cooperative research and development with AFRL began in May 2014 and were finalized close to the end of the year, Gunderson said, allowing an exchange of data between Booz Allen and the service.

Centennial-1 will collect about 900,000 data records a week, which will be beamed to a ground station the company set up for the tiny spacecraft in Minnesota. The cubesat, which has no onboard propulsion, could be in orbit for up to a year — about as long as an unfueled cubesat in such a low orbit can expect to last, Gunderson said.

Booz Allen spent “a few hundred thousand dollars” of its own money on Centennial-1, Gunderson said. A copy would likely cost much less, said Gunderson, as the company bought extra parts to experiment with for its inaugural cubesat build.

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
The April 14 SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of a cargo resupply mission to the ISS. Credit: NASA video capture

Centennial-1 was among the 2,000 kilograms of cargo aboard the SpaceX Dragon capsule that reached the space station April 17 and will be gradually unloaded over a period of weeks. All together, Dragon carried more than a dozen cubesats to the station on its latest NASA-funded cargo run. All of them will be deployed from the space station’s Japanese-built Kibo module, which houses a commercially operated cubesat dispenser owned by NanoRacks of Webster, Texas. Centennial-1 is slated for deployment no earlier than late July, Gunderson said.

If that seems like a long wait, it is nothing compared with the wait Booz Allen might have faced: Centennial-1 originally was scheduled to fly to the ISS onboard the Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo tug destroyed when the Dulles, Virginia-based company’s Antares rocket exploded moments after its Oct. 28 liftoff.

Booz Allen, however, had pulled Centennial-1 off that fateful flight because, at the time, the NanoRacks cubesat deployer on station was malfunctioning and Gunderson worried that repairs might take longer than the solar-powered Centennial-1’s battery could hold a charge.