FalconSAT Program

The U.S. Air Force Academy FalconSAT program provides cadets an opportunity to design, analyze, build, test and operate small satellites to conduct Department of Defense space missions. FalconSAT research is conducted within the Academy's Space Systems Research Center. The SSRC coordinates research funding with outside organizations and provides planning and management for satellite missions.

The small satellite program achieved a major milestone when Falcon Gold, the Academy's first orbiting spacecraft, was launched into space on an Atlas rocket Oct. 24, 1997. The goal of the mission was to investigate the feasibility of performing GPS-aided navigation by high-altitude satellites (e.g. geosynchronous) operating above the GPS satellite constellation. All systems operated nominally during the successful mission until primary battery power on the spacecraft was depleted. Cadets participated in all phases of the mission including systems design, fabrication, launch vehicle integration, qualification testing, launch site operations, and mission operations. The Academy's next space mission, FalconSat-1, was launched in January 2000 aboard a converted Minuteman II missile.

The first free-flying Academy satellite, FalconSAT-1, carried the Charging Hazards and Wake Studies experiment developed by the Physics Department at the Academy. The launch was successful and the satellite was deployed into its orbit without problems. However, the following weeks, cadets working in the Academy ground station struggled to bring the satellite totally on-line. Initial communication contacts with the satellite went well, but during subsequent it became apparent that the spacecraft's power system was not functioning correctly to properly charge the batteries during daylight. Unfortunately, after about 1 month, the mission was satellite the mission was terminated.

While FalconSAT-1 was a technical failure, it was a resounding academic success. Cadets participated in all phases of the mission from conceptual design though assembly, integration, testing, launch and on-orbit operations.

In the Fall of 2000, the Academy Space Systems Research Center began to focus on a follow-on mission: FalconSAT-2. Learning many valuable lessons from the FalconSAT-1 experience, the emphasis has shifted more toward building a solid program rather than just a mission. A commercial-off-the-shelf set of spacecraft bus components consisting of power, communications and data handling was adopted to provide and out-of-the-box solution for critical components, freeing cadets and faculty to focus on payload, structure and attitude control development. 

Working with the Academy Physics Department, another important space environment experiment was developed called MESA (miniature electrostatic analyzer). Cadets briefed this experiment to the DOD Space Experiments Review Board in November 2000 where it was given an impressive 21 out of 34 ranking among all space experiments DOD-wide. In parallel, full-scale systems engineering efforts began on FalconSAT-2. Cadets FalconSAT Avionics and Simulation Testbed in Fall 2000 and began software development and payload integration.

In Spring 2001, cadets built a full scale engineering model of FalconSAT-2, including a cadet-built solar panel. A team of cadets traveled to Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., for two weeks in April 2001 to conduct complete environmental testing of the engineering model, including temperature cycling in a thermal vacuum chamber and vibration testing to many times the expected launch g-levels. The results validated the basic structural and systems design for the satellite, and final negotiations with the Air Force Space and Missile Center Space Test Program were conducted to aim for the launch of the MESA experiment on FalconSAT-2 on the Space Shuttle in early 2003.

In Summer 2002, cadets and faculty completed the flight model of FalconSAT-2 carrying the MESA Payload. MESA investigates the morphology of plasma depletions in the ionosphere that affect GPS and other military satellite communications. FalconSAT-2 was originally scheduled to launch on the Space Shuttle in early 2003. Unfortunately, the Columbia accident in February 2003 put the launch date on hold.

In December 2004, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced that it had manifested FalconSAT-2 to fly on the SPACEX Falcon I launch vehicle. FalconSAT was picked due to its rapid response and ease of integration -- SPACEX would like to fly the launch vehicle at Kwajalein Atoll, a remote island in the South Pacific. The cadets redesigned the antennas to give the satellite a stronger signal, qualified more than 20 cadets and faculty in the commissioning and operation of the satellite from the Academy ground station, completed two separation tests with the SPACEX hardware, did a "fit check" with the SPACEX launch vehicle, and prepared four Interface Control Documents ensuring they would be ready for the logistics of a remote launch. 

FalconSat-2 was launched aboard Space-X's Falcon 1 rocket on March 24, 2006. Problems during launch prevented the satellite from reaching orbit, but the program still provided a great deal of learning experience for the many cadets involved in designing, building and testing the spacecraft

In October 2003, cadets and faculty successfully briefed the critical design review on FalconSAT-3 to Air Force, Boeing, Aerospace, and other senior aerospace representatives. This mission carried three DOD payloads: 

-- Micro Propulsion Attitude Control Systems, pulsed plasma thrusters developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio; 

-- A Flat Plasma Spectrometer developed by the Academy NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center to demonstrate a new-generation of MEMS-based sensors and collect detailed measurements of the space plasma; 

-- Plasma Local Anomalous Noise Environment developed by the Academy to investigate the localized plasma environment around a spacecraft. 

In addition, FalconSAT-3 carries a shock ring vibration suppression device and a shape-memory composite actuated gravity gradient boom developed by AFRL. 

FalconSAT-4 could not be funded until three or four years later, which would have put the Academy's satellite program on hold. So the Academy scrapped plans for FalconSAT-4 and added new scientific experiments to the original payload to create FalconSAT-5. The new satellite weighs 160.7 kilograms and is scheduled to launch from the Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska, in December 2009.

(Current as of April 2009)