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Universities prepare to launch experiments with NASA, Virgin Orbit
by Paul Brinkmann
Washington DC (UPI) Dec 16, 2020

Experiments on a NASA educational satellite mission planned this month include two devices intended to inspect other spacecraft in space, a box of quartz marbles that will float in microgravity and a weather observation satellite to monitor storms.

Ten small satellites, or CubeSats, on the mission are packed for launch as early as next week from California. Nine of the craft were designed and built by eight universities in the United States, along with one built by NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett, Calif.

The launch had been planned for a Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket this Saturday, but the launch company posted on Twitter that a COVID-19 case among its crew set back the schedule.

A company representative said a new date hasn't been announced, as the firm still has personnel in quarantine while it does contact tracing among its launch crew.

Most of the satellites to be sent aloft are only about a foot long and just a few inches high and wide. Among those small, boxy spacecraft are the two inspection satellites.

Over five years, about 40 students at Brigham Young University in Utah built the inspection spacecraft, said David Long, a professor of electrical and computer engineering there.

"This is a first step toward what some people call a spacecraft selfie camera. You could just toss one out and inspect the exterior," Long said.

Such an inspection device could help save time and money by avoiding the need for spacewalks by astronauts or separate launches of spacecraft to inspect or repair other satellites, he said.

Brigham Young's two small cubes have cameras that point in every direction. As they separate from the rocket's upper stage and float away, they will photograph each other, the rocket and other craft that are released at the same time, Long said.

"We planned this experiment before everyone got so used to seeing SpaceX video on launches, but there is a need for free-floating cameras like these in space," he said.

The satellites are called Passive Inspection CubeSats, or PICs. The university obtained a $200,000 NASA grant for the project, which also is designed simply to teach students how to build a satellite.

Long said the PICs are designed for remote tracking from Earth, which is important because his crew of students who will monitor the mission are quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure.

Another camera is headed to space inside a CubeSat prepared by the University of Central Florida in Orlando with a $400,000 grant from NASA. That satellite is carrying the quartz marbles for a microgravity study.

The experiment, called Q-PACE, has video cameras inside to observe how the marbles interact with smaller spheres, dust and other materials, said Joshua Colwell, a physics professor and planetary scientist.

The experiment is intended to help explain how dust and rocks form planetary bodies in space by clumping together, and how rings like Saturn's form. Colwell said such clumps don't form from gravity at first, but rather by electrostatic attraction -- like socks in a dryer sticking together.

"We have the ability to shake the chamber, and then watch how soon the objects stop moving, and if any of them stick together," Colwell said. "A previous experiment on the International Space Station showed interesting patterns, but we expect this to give us better data."

The weather satellite, called PolarCube, carries imaging equipment -- a microwave spectrometer to detect how storms form. The project originally was intended to inspect polar regions, but the university said engineers realized it would not be able to reach a polar orbit because they are hitching a ride with so many other craft.

Other the past few decades, NASA has launched many similar missions, which it calls an Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) mission. The upcoming launch is ELaNa 20.

The launch is the first time a Virgin Orbit rocket will carry a commercial payload. The company's new LauncherOne rocket is carried high above the Pacific Ocean under the wing of modified Boeing 747-400.

Virgin Orbit successfully launched that model rocket once before in May without a paying customer, but it failed after disengaging from the plane.

The rocket is released from the jet and fires its thrusters, taking the second stage and payloads into space. The second stage would then move the spacecraft into their intended orbit and release them in batches of three.

Two satellites headed into orbit will measure radiation in space: CAPE-3, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and the RadFXSat-2 from Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Also on board are EXOCUBE, a spacecraft that will detect gases in Earth's extreme upper atmosphere that was developed at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo.

Then there's the CACTUS-1 satellite from Capitol Technology University near Baltimore, which includes an orbital debris detector and Internet-based communication instruments.

The MiTEE satellite from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor will gauge how electric energy is measured in space.

NASA's own satellite, the TechEdSat-7, is part of a series of NASA small satellites that have tested the deployment of space-based parachutes, called exobrakes, which help to slow spacecraft in the upper atmosphere.

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NASA awards contract for Global Hawk Skyrange program
Edwards AFB CO (SPX) Dec 16, 2020
NASA has selected Northrup Grumman Systems Corp. (NGSC) of San Diego to provide demonstration engineering, manufacturing, and technical support for the Global Hawk Skyrange program at the agency's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. The firm-fixed price contract begins Tuesday, Dec. 15, and runs through Dec. 14, 2025, with a total value of $70 million with no options. The Skyrange program will obtain engineering, technical and fight operations, and maintenance support fr ... read more

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