Learning space by doing space

FalconSAT tasks cadets with putting satellites into space

When the first operational SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida (currently scheduled for June 2018), it will do so as the world’s most powerful operational rocket, capable of carrying a payload of more than 54 metric tons, equivalent to a fully-loaded 737 jetliner.

Included in the manifest of the historic flight are the FalconSAT-6 and FalconSAT-7 satellites, developed by cadets and faculty at the United States Air Force Academy.

FalconSAT-6, a 169-kg small satellite, is designed to run experiments and gather data focused on electric propulsion, contamination measurement, communications and advanced solar power technologies.

FalconSAT-7, an 11-pound nanosatellite, carries a photon sieve solar telescope designed to capture images of the sun’s outer atmosphere.

Cadets will operate the satellites from the Academy’s Michael Wynne Space Operations Center in the astronautics laboratory.

“Learning space by doing space is the motto of the Air Force Academy’s unique FalconSAT senior capstone engineering program, a program unlike any other undergraduate space program in the world,” says Col. Martin France ’81, permanent professor and head of the USAFA Department of Astronautics. “USAFA is the only undergrad institution in the world where students help design, build, test, launch and operate uniquely designed small satellites.”

The FalconSAT program grew out of on-board Space Shuttle experiments designed and built by faculty and cadets in the 1980s, including an experiment on the maiden voyage of the Challenger orbiter in 1983.

As the scope and complexity of the experiments increased, the missions fell under the administration of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). Academy cadets and staff collaborate with researchers at AFRL, NASA, Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT), National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The FalconSAT capstone program gives cadets hands-on experience developing satellites that perform tasks and gather data contributing to leading-edge technological advances.

“Our primary objective for the FalconSAT program is to improve pervasive space technology,” says Lt. Col. Todd Nathaniel ’97, the director of the Space Systems Research Center (SSRC). “We have a long history of contributing to real DoD missions on issues like GPS utility and effectiveness, electric propulsion technology, communication, space environment characterization, and on-orbit demonstration of innovative satellite bus technologies like new solar cells.”

The cadets work in teams that focus on different aspects of satellite development, including mechanical engineering; navigation, guidance and control (NGC); on-board avionics; test and operations; and systems engineering. It all comes together in a completed satellite that is ready to be launched into space.

Cadets 1st Class Mark Duntz and Logan Cowan are working on FalconSAT- 8, a satellite developed to test advanced propulsion technologies in space. Both are astronautics majors slated for pilot training after graduation in May. Cowan says he “wants to fly something fast.” Duntz would like to become a test pilot. Both cadets are thankful for their FalconSAT experience.

“The project management experience has been great, and getting a little insight into how the Air Force acquisitions process operates has been insightful,” Cowan says. “It’s great working on real-world projects,” Duntz adds. “For me working as a pilot, seeing the acquisition, design, fabrication and test process for real Air Force equipment gives me a greater understanding of the systems and processes that I will hopefully be working with one day. Almost everyone in the Air Force depends on space assets, so having a thorough understanding of the capabilities of space systems is important for any career field.”

The importance of satellite technology to both modern warfare and private industry has helped forge unique partnerships between the Department of Defense and the corporate world. Corporations including Lockheed Martin and Boeing have provided funding and technical assistance for FalconSAT projects.

“Many large aerospace corporations not only help our program by supplying payloads through AFRL that we will ultimately fly, but by also providing our cadets with summer research opportunities related to FalconSAT, giving tours and providing access to cadets and faculty during the academic year, speaking to our classes and visiting our labs, and then attending and being active participants in our end-of-year semester reviews,” France says.

As the Falcon Heavy launch of FalconSAT-6 and -7 inches closer, there is a lot of excitement among staff and cadets within the FalconSAT program. FalconSAT-8, with launch anticipated in early 2019, is also nearing completion, opening up new frontiers for future satellites projects.

“In the future, I see a continued string of missions that AFRL sponsors covering a wide area of electric propulsion and satellite component technology advances,” says France. “We’re on a path now to deliver a satellite with its payload ready for launch in as little as 30 months, so the ability to handle new technologies is fairly high.”


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