NearSpace Launch EyeStar S-4 data showing connectivity coverage for satellites transmitting data through the Iridium Next constellation. Credit: NearSpace Launch

SAN FRANCISCO – NearSpace Launch, an Indiana company known for robotically assembling ThinSats, is unveiling a new Black Box for autonomous satellite tracking and data relay.

“Operators want to keep connected to their satellite to get critical health and safety data,” Matthew Voss, NSL chief operating officer, told SpaceNews. “Even over the polar regions or the ocean, you can always connect to your satellites.”

Interest in Black Boxes is growing. Launch aggregators help dozens of cubesats and microsatellites travel together as secondary payloads on rocket rideshare missions. Once in orbit, it is sometimes difficult to identify individual satellites deployed from the same launch vehicle, particularly if onboard batteries or radios fail.

Universities, NASA, the Defense Department and companies have purchased and flown more than 180 NSL EyeStar radios to transmit data between satellites and the ground through the Globalstar and Iridium communications constellations. Going forward, EyeStar radios will connect through Iridium Next satellites.

New Black Box

NSL’s new Black Box augments the EyeStar radio with GPS tracking plus sensors to keep tabs on satellite health and safety. The latest self-powered Black Box comes in four sizes and relays data through Iridium.

“The Black Box is so small we can attach it to the outside of an ESPA ring,” Voss said. “We have even attached it to cubesats for several universities.”

With funding from the U.S. Air Force Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, NSL developed software that turns GPS data collected by the Black Box into ephemeris and two-line element data. The Black Box transmits the location data to the U.S. Space Command’s 18th Space Defense squadron.

NSL plans to launch the new Black Box with GPS and sensors in June as part of the Train-Rapid on Orbit Payload F2 mission.

Under a SpaceWERX Small Business Technology Transfer award, NSL also is integrated the Black Box with deorbit technology and space weather sensors.

EyeStar Demonstrations

In 2022, NSL showed its EyeStar radio could transmit data via satellites.

NSL launched the Globalstar Experiment and Risk Reduction Satellite in January 2022 on a Virgin Galactic LauncherOne. In March 2022, NSL’s S4 Crossover flew on the Astra Rocket 3. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carried NSL’s Train Rapid On Orbit Payload 3 to orbit in May. The S4 Crossover and TROOP-3 radios sent data through Iridium satellites.

“We were able to prove that the radios could even work when a satellite is in a tumble,” Voss said. “You still get your critical data down.”

To keep up with demand for satellites and components, NSL moved into a new facility in Upland, Indiana, in 2022.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...