Academy space fleet continues to grow

Cadet 1st Class Tyler Stecker creates an umbilical pairing for the flight model of FalconSAT-5 at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo., March 17. The umbilical pairing will allow the satellite?s batteries to be continually charged until launch. FalconSAT-5 is slated for launch in December. (U.S. Air Force photo/Dave Armer)

Cadet 1st Class Tyler Stecker creates an umbilical pairing for the flight model of FalconSAT-5 at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo., March 17. The umbilical pairing will allow the satellite?s batteries to be continually charged until launch. FalconSAT-5 is slated for launch in December. (U.S. Air Force photo/Dave Armer)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The Academy's space fleet grows even larger this year, with the launch of one satellite, continued operations of a second satellite and design work underway for a third. 

The newest addition will be FalconSAT-6, which is on the drawing board now. 

The FalconSAT space fleet is a series of cadet-designed and cadet-built satellites, which carry scientific experiments in space to further military and academic research. 

The Department of Astronautics' Small Satellite Research Center manages satellite design, construction and operation, while the Department of Physics' Space Physics and Atmospheric Research Center obtains and manages the experiments. 

The two centers sponsored a symposium here recently to receive input from the space community on identifying potential payloads, satellite technologies and mission concepts for the SSRC and SPARC. 

Representatives from 27 separate military and civilian organizations presented their proposed scientific experiments in hopes of getting their experiment included in the scientific payload of FalconSAT-6. These included representatives from the Air Force Research Laboratory, NASA, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northrop Grumman and the Air Force Institute of Technology, as well as several American universities, space defense contractors and even Singapore-based Nanyang Technical University. 

The cadets are evaluating these presentations against a variety of criteria and will develop several satellite concepts for FalconSAT-6 using the best and most appropriate combinations of payloads. These satellite concepts will then be presented to several government agencies for funding decisions and to the Space Test Program for manifest decisions on future launch opportunities. FalconSAT-6 is expected to be funded in the $5-million to $10-million range and may have a launch opportunity in 2011 or 2012. 

"This is a real opportunity for our cadets to develop as world-class space professionals," Dean of Faculty Brig. Gen. Dana Born said to the symposium attendees. The general opened the FalconSAT-6 symposium with an overview of the FalconSAT program and key staff. 

"This is the only accredited program where we have undergraduates build, launch and operate satellites. That doesn't happen in any other satellite program in the United States," General Born said. The program provides cadets with professional development opportunities and understanding of the application of space power and also exercises their decision making and critical thinking skills. 

While the planning stages of FalconSAT-6 are well underway, work on the first physical FalconSAT-6 construct will begin this fall, when a group of more than 30 senior cadets will take a two-semester Astronautics capstone course to design and build the first model of FalconSAT-6. 

The FalconSAT program is currently a three-year program cycle, based off the classic Russian approach to satellite design -- build three satellites per mission: engineering model, qualification model, and flight model. 

"This approach gives each cadet class a significant deliverable and milestone every year with a plan of completing a new mission every three years, while allowing the cadets to experience 'hands-on' assembly, integration, and test," said Lt. Col. Tim Lawrence, director of the SSRC. "It reinforces the importance of documentation, since each cadet class must pass its work to the next class. Finally, it significantly reduces program risk by avoiding last-minute integration and testing issues which lead to scheduling and budget woes for many space programs." 

Meanwhile, work is underway to complete FalconSAT-5, and operations continue with FalconSAT-3. 

But that leaves out FalconSAT-4. 

When the plans for FalconSAT-4 were racked and stacked with other space projects for funding, it turned out that funds would not be available until three to four years later ... which would have put the Academy's satellite program on hold for that same span of time. So plans for FalconSAT-4 were scrubbed, and new scientific experiments were added to the payload to create FalconSAT-5, which was funded. 

"FalconSAT-5 is the current satellite under construction here," said Cadet 1st Class Tim Phillips, chief engineer for FalconSAT-5. "The basic objectives of FalconSAT-5 (scientific missions) are to characterize anomalies in space weather phenomena." 

The satellite measures in as a 60 by 69 by 96 centimeter cube with a mass of 160.7 kilograms. Cadets will the complete the flight model of FalconSAT-5 this semester. 

"We expect to deliver the satellite for launch Oct. 1," said Cadet Phillips. Once the delivery is accepted, FalconSAT-5 will be one of several payloads prepped for a December launch, on the secondary payload adaptor of a Minotaur rocket. That rocket will be launched from the Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska. 

Once FalconSAT-5 is placed into orbit, it will be operated by cadets in the Academy's ground station, similar to what is being done today on FalconSAT-3. 

Cadet crews from the cadet space operations squadron currently operate FalconSAT-3, said Cadet 1st Class Sam Gay, chief engineer for FalconSAT-3. That cadet-built satellite is a 55-kilogram, 45-centimeter cube that houses five scientific experiments. It was launched March 8, 2007. 

FalconSAT-3 completed 149 operational passes during the fall semester, not counting other passes used for software upgrades and remote maintenance or when ground weather at the Academy hindered the ground antennas. 

Cadet satellite operators handle three passes per weekday to download experimental data. FalconSAT-3's experiments concentrate on space weather and satellite operations.