Space experiment to push standardization in small satellites

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A 12U cubesat scheduled to launch on an upcoming Virgin Orbit mission will carry 19 payloads

COLORADO SPRINGS – An experiment scheduled to launch this fall on Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket will try to show a faster and cheaper way to test technologies on orbit. 

Called Slingshot 1, the small satellite built by Aerospace Corp. on a bus from Blue Canyon Technologies, is about the size of a toaster and will carry 19 different payloads to low Earth orbit. 

A key technology Aerospace wants to demonstrate is an interface box where up to 20 payloads can plug into. Program manager Hannah Weiher said this interface could significantly simplify the process of integrating payloads and would allow space companies and government agencies to put together technology demonstrations relatively quickly.

“What we’re looking at is to basically streamline satellite development in less time for less cost through modularity,” she told SpaceNews. 

The payload interface in Slingshot 1 was designed to be a “simple plug and play interface for payloads to communicate with the bus and other payloads regardless of the bus design, said Weiher.

If the experiment performs well in orbit, the interface could be mass produced for use by industry and government, she said. 

The space industry for years has pushed for standards but satellites continue to be built using customized interfaces, Weiher said, and it can be difficult to accommodate a large number of payloads each with unique requirements.

“There hasn’t been a standard interface that has gained widespread adoption” so the Slingshot experiment is an attempt to prove the value of having a single interface, Weiher said. If more companies embraced a standard interface, payloads could be developed so they can fly on just about any satellite.

Most of the 19 payloads on Slingshot 1 were funded by Aerospace and a few are from customers, said Weiher. The payloads include artificial intelligence and machine learning demonstrations, a GPS transponder for space traffic management, IoT, laser communications, onboard malware detection,  onboard ethernet, a camera module and a hydrogen peroxide thruster. 

The payload interface, named Handle, has been in development for two years and now needs to be proven on orbit, she said.

“Our research has shown that the electrical interfaces in Handle’s design are compatible with many currently available small satellites on the market today,” Weiher said. “Handle regulates the host satellite’s power and distributes it to payloads, and it creates a local Ethernet network with a bridge to the host satellite’s communication protocol.”

“It would be quite dramatic how much satellite production would change when you have a standard interface,” Weiher said. 

Slingshot 1 is manifested on Virgin Orbit’s STP-S28 mission, a Defense Department Space Test Program mission awarded to Virgin Orbit in 2020. STP-S28, currently projected to launch in September, also will fly a number of U.S. Space Force technology demonstrations.