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CU Boulder Mini Satellites Part of Major ‘rideshare’ Mission Monday

November 18, 2018

Longmont Times-Call

The University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics is primed for Monday’s scheduled launch of two of its miniature satellites on a mission to collect data on the physics of the sun and its impact on Earth.

The two LASP missions are known as the Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer-2 (MinXSS-2) and the Compact Spectral Irradiance Monitor (CSIM).

Both are part of the payload for the Monday launch of Spaceflight’s SSO-A SmallSat Express mission, onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket set to be launched at 11:30 a.m. MST from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Monday’s mission launch highlights CU’s growing prominence in deploying CubeSats, as they are known, for scientific research. Tom Woods, associate director of LASP, said that as opportunities increase to launch spacecraft from commercial missions like SSO-A, small satellites will become even more popular tools for scientists.

“The time is right to do more and more science with these small satellites,” Woods, the associate director for technical divisions at LASP, said in a statement.

And in an interview, Woods — who is principal investigator on the MinXSS-2 and co-investigator on the CSIM — said, “The cost is one of the biggest advantages. Just because, to launch something in space, they charge per kilogram. So the less mass, you tend to have less cost associated with building it.

“The rule of thumb is about $1 million per kilogram, so as you can imagine, we’re building these small sats for a few million, not hundreds of millions.”

CubeSats are designed to tackle significant scientific challenges, and to do so in small packages, often utilizing “off-the-shelf” equipment, to limit both their cost and weight. One example cited in a news release is that the antenna for MinXSS-2 is fashioned from a hardware store tape measure that will spring into place when the CubeSat attains orbit.

“They say that great things come in small packages. I think LASP is doing amazing space science in these remarkable small spacecraft,” LASP Director Daniel Baker said in an email.

“It is a ‘sweet spot’ for LASP to use compact missions to understand the Sun and Earth — and in the process train the next generation of engineers and managers. Just a few years ago, people thought that CubeSats were toys. Now LASP is showing that such satellites can do wonderful work with a modest cost.”

LASP’s CubeSats, smaller than a microwave oven, will be sent into a near-Earth orbit with 62 other payloads from 34 organizations representing 17 different countries, according to Spaceflight spokesperson Christine Melby.

Both could see their missions extended to more than five years, although their initial funding is for shorter periods of time — CSIM initially for one year, MinXSS-2 for two.

Seattle-based Spaceflight, which bills itself as the “leading rideshare and mission management provider,” claims Monday’s launch is “the largest single rideshare missions from a U.S. -based launch vehicle to date.”

Launching 64 satellites from one launch vehicle, according to Spaceflight president Curt Blake, “is a challenging feat and our talented team has made many advances to make this historic launch a reality. As demand for affordable launch options continues to grow, dedicated rideshare missions will play an important role in providing frequent and reliable access to space.”

LASP’s CSIM satellite, while in orbit, will point toward the sun and monitor changes in the energy that it sends toward Earth. Those shifts, part of the 11-year cycle of changes in the sun’s magnetic activity, play a pivotal role in shaping the Earth’s climate. CSIM was built by Boulder’s Blue Canyon Technologies, according to a news release.

MinXSS-2 is a follow-up to MinXSS, which was deployed in 2016, and operated for a year. MinXSS-2′s assignment will last longer, with the satellite staying in orbit for up to five years, and it will also collect data on what are termed “soft” X-rays coming from the sun, the release stated.

Such high-energy radiation can yield new insights into the behavior of the sun’s magnetic fields, capable of producing eruptions dangerous both to satellites and global power grids.

About two hours after launch, the satellites will enter sun synchronous orbit — passing over Boulder at 10:30 a.m. and again at 10:30 p.m. — every day. Woods will not be at the launch, and instead will be in Boulder, to watch for the initial data that is returned.

“These Falcon 9s, they launched another one yesterday (Thursday), so they’re obviously launching these fairly frequently,” Woods said. SpaceX is having a lot of flights and they’re pretty successful.

“And the weather is looking pretty okay, so I think it’s likely to launch on time.”

Charlie Brennan: 303-473-1327, brennanc@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/chasbrennan

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