U.S. Air Force Hopes To Wring Some Utility from Balky SENSE Nanosats

by

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force plans to award Boeing a $400,000 contract to correct problems on a pair of experimental weather satellites that launched in 2013 but are not yet providing data.

The Space Environmental NanoSatellite Experiment, or SENSE, was expected to collect data to help characterize Earth’s upper atmosphere and forecast changes in the ionosphere. Understanding atmospheric conditions and changes are important to the Air Force because they can affect GPS signals from space.

Speaking at breakfast here March 11, Dave Madden, executive director of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, cited the nanosatellites as an example of how the service is experimenting with new acquisition approaches.

“How many people in here are familiar with the SENSE satellite?” he asked. “How many people know it don’t work?”

A week earlier, Air Force officials signed a justification and approval document for a $400,000 contract for Boeing without competition to oversee flight software activation and “continued anomaly resolution efforts” on the SENSE satellites. The document was dated March 4 but posted to the Federal Business Opportunities website April 3.

SENSE spacecraft in orbit
Space Environmental NanoSatellite Experiment (SENSE) spacecraft in orbit. Credit: U.S. Air Force

The two SENSE satellites each measure 30 centimeters by 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters and include a sensor, a GPS receiver and a miniature S-band transceiver.

Boeing’s Phantom Works of Huntington Beach, California, developed the satellite platforms and associated software. The sensors were built by the Stanford Research Institute of Palo Alto, California, Naval Research Laboratory in Washington and the Aerospace Corp. of El Segundo, California.

Prior to their launch, the SENSE satellites were held up by Boeing officials as an example of a low-cost space solution featuring a modular design and several commercial off-the-shelf components. The satellites launched aboard a Minotaur 1 rocket in November 2013 as part of the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space 3 mission, which included 28 experimental satellites.

Boeing officials had said in 2012 the satellites were expected to begin collecting and transmitting data almost immediately. However, both satellites initially failed to deploy their solar arrays after launch and one suffered from power limitations and intermittent communication outages, according to an Air Force technical paper on the project. But the paper, presented last spring at the 2014 Space Symposium, said that “SENSE still will be able to provide ionospheric measurements for analysis and assessment.”

Cheryl Sampson, a Boeing spokeswoman, referred questions to the Space and Missile Systems Center. The Air Force did not respond to a request for an estimate of when the satellites might begin to provide data.

In the April 3 justification document, the Air Force said Boeing had performed “numerous on-orbit anomaly resolution efforts” since the launch and that “activation of the flight software would be impossible” without the company. The document also said there is a “limited window” for support because of the design life of the space vehicles. Each satellite has a one- to three-year life expectancy.

Boeing’s initial contract for on-orbit SENSE support ended in December 2013, the document said. The new contract would run through May 2015.

During his speech, Madden said he believed the Air Force could build satellites at less cost if engineers understood that every vehicle was not critical and thus did not require extra layers of resiliency for mission assurance. The service approached the SENSE nanosatellites with a different mentality, he said.

“It was a demonstration experiment and we were trying something,” he said. “We didn’t plan on it not working. We didn’t plan on not using it once it got up there. It was an experiment. We put it up. We need to get more of the thought process kind of like that. Trying something, it didn’t work, we’re going to try something else. It was a low-dollar kind of thing.”