After losing a satellite in the failed first launch

of Space Exploration Technologies’

Falcon 1 rocket in March, the U.S. Air Force Academy is gearing up for the launch of its next spacecraft.


is part of a group of small payloads that will be launched together sometime this fall aboard an Atlas 5 rocket built by Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md. The academy spacecraft will carry two plasma sensors, as well as an experimental thruster, said Air Force Lt. Col. Timothy Lawrence, director of the space systems research center in the astronautics department of the Colorado Springs, Colo., academy.

One of those sensors is similar to the Falconsat-2 payload, and could help the military better forecast plasma bubbles in space that can damage satellites, Lawrence said. The other sensor looks at the effect of the host spacecraft on plasma in the local space environment, to see how satellite signals can

be delayed or degraded on their way to Earth, he said.

The academy’s Falconsat-2 spacecraft, which featured a payload intended to monitor low energy electrons in space that can form plasma bubbles, crashed into a nearby shed when the Falcon 1 rocket failed shortly after takeoff from the company’s launch pad on Kwajalein Island.

To make up for failing to put Falconsat-2 into orbit, SpaceX founder and chief executive officer, Elon Musk,

has offered the academy a free ride for a secondary payload aboard the larger Falcon 9 rocket, which the company hopes to

debut later this decade.

The academy is currently

involved with internal Pentagon discussions that will determine the payload that will ride on a cadet-built spacecraft that is intended to follow at some point in the future, according to Lawrence.

Lawrence said that the academy had not expected anything from SpaceX to make up for the failure, and is appreciative of Musk’s offer, especially given the difficulty of finding inexpensive rides for its satellites.

The academy also enjoyed an April visit from Musk in which he spoke to an audience that included cadets as well as senior leadership at the school, including Lt. Gen. John Regni, the academy’s superintendent and Brig. Gen. Dana Born, the dean of faculty.

The experimental thruster on Falconsat-3 is designed

to examine the use of smaller thruster technology for attitude control, Lawrence said.

Two of the candidates for the payload aboard the spacecraft to follow Falconsat-3 are geared toward space surveillance.

Candidates include an experiment intended to study the effects of water vapor in the atmosphere on radar sensors used to monitor objects in space, as well as a satellite sensor designed to detect the firing of spacecraft thrusters nearby, Lawrence said.

Meanwhile, the academy started a program this year called “Space for All” that is intended to broaden the

awareness of cadets about the role of space within the Air Force.

Lawrence noted that all first-year cadets, even those who do not plan to be pilots, have the opportunity to fly a glider when they enter the academy, and that

Space for All

is intended as a similar introduction by giving them the opportunity to operate the Falconsat-2 qualification model in a ground station.

The program, which runs for three weeks, also includes tours of Air Force Space Command facilities in Colorado Springs, Lawrence said. The program this year will include 150 cadets out of the class of 900.