NASA Offering Rides to New Crop of Cubesats

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WASHINGTON — NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative is seeking a fresh crop of nanosatellites to hitch a ride on previously planned launches between 2013 and 2016, the agency said Aug. 13. While no funding is being provided for development of the spacecraft themselves, NASA will fly the selected cubesats as auxiliary payloads on upcoming U.S. government launches. Six of the 64 cubesats NASA has selected under the program since mid-2010 reached orbit last October as secondary payloads on the United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket that launched the Suomi NPP climate and weather satellite. Three other CubeSat Launch Initiative spacecraft were lost in the March 2011 Taurus XL launch failure that destroyed NASA’s Glory climate-monitoring satellite.

Four more cubesats are slated to ride along with NROL-36, a classified U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) mission currently expected to launch Sept. 6 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

The remaining 51 already selected cubesats have either been manifested as secondary payloads on upcoming launches or are still waiting to be matched up with rides between now and 2014. NASA spokesman Joshua Buck said 10 of those cubesats have been assigned to Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX)’s third cargo delivery flight to the international space station. Eight more have been assigned to the Orbital Sciences Corp. Minotaur 1 rocket launching from Wallops Island, Va., next year on behalf of the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space Office. Other upcoming cubesat launch opportunities, Buck said, include NROL-39 and additional SpaceX cargo delivery flights.

NASA, meanwhile, is giving applicants interested in joining the launch queue until Nov. 12 to submit proposals. The agency expects to make its selections by the end of January. “Selection does not guarantee a launch opportunity,” NASA said in its Aug. 13 announcement. “The selected spacecraft will be eligible for flight after final negotiations when a launch opportunity arises.”

Cubesats are a standard class of research satellites that measure 10 centimeters on each side and weigh up to 1.33 kilograms.

NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative is open to single-unit cubesats as well as larger spacecraft built from as many as six standard cubesats and weighing no more than 14 kilograms. The final weight limit for six-unit cubesats, NASA says, is still to be determined.

NASA also said it is only looking for projects relevant to the agency’s goals. “Proposed CubeSat investigations must be consistent with NASA’s Strategic Plan and the NASA education vision and goals,” the announcement states. “The research must address aspects of science, exploration, technology development, education or operations.”

NASA’s announcement coincided with the start of the 26th annual Conference on Small Satellites, hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Utah State University in Logan, Utah.

 

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