The University of Southern California (USC)'s Aeneas cubesat project. Credit: USC

WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in February contracted with Boeing Phantom Works for as many as 50 triple-unit cubesats, each about the size of a can of tennis balls, for use in technology demonstrations, a government official said.

The inexpensive satellite platforms will be used for the follow-on to an NRO research program called Colony, which is scheduled to make its first launch this year, Air Force Maj. David “Dutch” Shultz, director of the NRO’s Colony Program Office, said in an April 8 interview.

The Boeing-built Colony 2 platforms will be more powerful than their predecessors and feature better pointing accuracy, Shultz said. The NRO has yet to assign specific experiments to the craft, he said.

The Colony Program Office, nestled within the NRO’s Advanced Systems and Technology division, was established in 2008 to demonstrate new technologies. The office uses cubesats, which are standardized, cube-shaped satellite platforms measuring 10 centimeters on a side. Last year the office bought its first batch of 12 triple-unit cubesats — three cubesats attached end to end — from San Francisco-based Pumpkin Inc., about half of which were resold to research institutions such as Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory and the University of Southern California, Shultz said.

One of the NRO’s Colony 1 satellites will host a space weather payload developed in cooperation with the Naval Research Laboratory, Schultz said. The missions of the remaining satellites are classified, he said.

The first two Colony 1 satellites are manifested for launch as secondary payloads on the second flight of the Falcon 9 rocket built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., Shultz said. SpaceX plans to launch the first Falcon 9 in May and the second later on this year. The second Falcon 9 flight’s primary payload is SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which is designed to deliver cargo to the international space station. The flight also will carry two cubesats built by the Los Alamos National Laboratory and one built by the Army Space and Missile Defense Command.

The rest of the Colony 1 spacecraft will be launched together on SpaceX’s smaller Falcon 1e rocket in 2011, Shultz said. The launch, which is being managed by the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space Office, will be the first to use a new, small satellite rideshare adapter known as the wafer. The wafer is an aluminum disk that fits between the upper stage of a rocket and its primary payload and dispenses satellites from spring-loaded canisters. Each wafer can carry as many as 24 single cubesats or eight triple cubesats.

This particular Falcon 1e mission will have two wafers stacked on top of each other, one holding as many as eight NRO triple cubesats, the other holding an assortment of Air Force and NASA research cubesats, Shultz said.

For the follow-on Colony 2 program, the NRO purchased 10 triple cubesats from St. Louis-based Boeing Phantom Works, the advanced research and development division of the aerospace and defense giant. The NRO likely will purchase 10 more satellite platforms from Boeing next year, and possibly as many as 30 more beyond that, Shultz said.

The goal was to acquire the craft for no more than $250,000 each, and the unit cost ended up well below that amount, he said.