Minotaur I Record Satellite Launch Includes First Student Built CubeSat & PhoneSat 2.4

Artist conception of TJ3Sat in orbit. (Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation)
Artist conception of student-built TJ3Sat in orbit. (Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation)

WALLOPS ISLAND, Virg. (NASA & OSC PRs) — The United States Air Force Minotaur I rocket scheduled for launch on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. from Virginia will carry a record number of satellites — 29 — into orbit. The rocket will launch a defense test spacecraft and 28 small CubeSats,  including the first satellite designed and built by high school students and PhoneSat 2.4, a second generation smartphone mission.

The Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space Office’s ORS-3 mission will demonstrate and validate launch and range improvements for NASA and the military. These include automated trajectory targeting, range-safety planning and flight termination systems. The launch also will be part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) certification process for the Minotaur rocket. The FAA has licensing authority over American commercial rockets.

The Minotaur’s primary payload is the Space Test Program Satellite-3 (STPSat-3), an Air Force technology-demonstration mission. Thirteen small cubesats aboard are being provided through NASA’s Cubesat Launch Initiative.

Students assemble the TJ3Sat. (Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation)
Students work on TJ3Sat. (Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation)

First Student Built Satellite

The TJ³Sat is a small-size CubeSat developed, built and tested by students from the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. Over the past several years, volunteers from Orbital Sciences Corporation’s technical staff mentored the student team and provided engineering oversight, while the company made its space testing facilities available and provided financial support for the satellite project. TJ³Sat was assigned to the ORS-3 mission launch through NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program based on launch manifest availability.

“Since the beginning of the TJ³Sat program, Orbital has purchased flight hardware and contributed mentors and advice throughout the process, as well as assistance with final testing prior to launch,” said Mr. David W. Thompson, Orbital’s President and Chief Executive Officer. “We are thrilled to see the hard work and dedicated efforts of the students at Thomas Jefferson High School come to fruition and look forward to the educational benefits this satellite will bring to other students around the world.”

The TJ³Sat project was conceived as a method to interest students around the world in space-related science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. TJ3Sat utilizes the CubeSat standard design developed by Stanford University and California Polytechnic State University. The cube-shaped satellite measures approximately 3.9×3.9×4.5 inches (10x10x12 centimeters) and has a mass of about 2.0 pounds (0.89 kilograms).

The TJ3Sat’s payload is a phonetic voice synthesizer that converts strings of text to voice. Students from around the world can submit text strings to be uploaded to the satellite for transmission. Approved text strings will be transmitted to the satellite and its Text Speak module will convert the text messages into a voice signal which will be relayed back to Earth over an amateur radio frequency using an onboard Stensat radio. In addition to the voice signals, properly outfitted amateur radio stations will also be able to receive state of health telemetry from the satellite.

Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation
Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation

“This partnership between our school and Orbital has allowed the students to gain valuable real-world experience in aerospace engineering and related disciplines, which will serve them well as they continue on their future careers,” said Dr. Evan Glazer, Principal of Thomas Jefferson High School.

TJ3Sat Performance:

Orbit: 500 km, 40.5° inclination
Dimension: 10 x 10 x 11 cm (3.9 x 3.9 x 4.5 in)
Launch mass: 0.89 kg (2.0 lbs)
Solar Arrays: Body mounted solar cells, >3W avg.
Stabilization: Uncontrolled
Spacecraft Radio Frequencies:
Uplink – 145.980 MHz, 1200 bps AFSK
Downlink – 437.320 MHz, 1200 bps AFSK
Transmitter Max Power: 1 W
Mission Life: 6 months (2-4 year orbit lifetime

Mission Website:  https://www.tjhsst.edu/students/activities/tj3sat/

PhoneSat 2.4

For the second time this year, NASA is preparing to send a smartphone-controlled small spacecraft into orbit. The PhoneSat 2.4 mission is demonstrating innovative new approaches for small spacecraft technologies of the future.

PhoneSat 2.4 builds upon the successful flights of a trio of NASA smartphone satellites that were orbited together last April. That pioneering mission gauged use of consumer-grade smartphone technology as the main control electronics of a capable, yet very low-cost, satellite, reports Andrew Petro, program executive for small spacecraft technology at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

NASA Ames engineers are building PhoneSats, demonstrating how "off the shelf" consumer devices can lead to new space exploration capabilities. (Credit:  NASA Ames Research Center/Dominic Hart)
NASA Ames engineers are building PhoneSats, demonstrating how “off the shelf” consumer devices can lead to new space exploration capabilities. (Credit:
NASA Ames Research Center/Dominic Hart)

Each smartphone is housed in a standard cubesat structure, measuring roughly four inches square.

The soon-to-be lofted PhoneSat 2.4 has two-way radio communications capability, along with reaction wheels to provide attitude control, Petro says, and will be placed into a much higher orbit than its PhoneSat predecessors. Those were short-lived, operating for about a week in orbit.

Tabletop technology

“We’re taking PhoneSat to another step in terms of capability, along with seeing if the satellite continues to function for an extended period of time,” Petro explains.

The PhoneSat mission is a technology demonstration project developed through the agency’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program, part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

NASA PhoneSats take advantage of “off-the-shelf” consumer devices that already have many of the systems needed for a spacecraft, but are ultra-small, such as fast processors, multipurpose operating systems, sensors, GPS receivers, and high-resolution cameras.

“It’s tabletop technology,” Petro says. “The size of a PhoneSat makes a big difference. You don’t need a building, just a room. Everything you need to do becomes easier and more portable. The scale of things just makes everything, in many ways, easier. It really unleashes a lot of opportunity for innovation,” he says.

Closeup of a NASA Ames PhoneSat (Credit:  NASA Ames Research Center/Dominic Hart)
Closeup of a NASA Ames PhoneSat (Credit:
NASA Ames Research Center/Dominic Hart)

Consumer electronics market

There’s another interesting aspect to using the smartphone as a basic electronic package for PhoneSats.

“The technology of the consumer electronics market is going to continue to advance,” Petro notes. “NASA can pick up on those advances that are driven by the needs of the consumer.”

What’s the big deal about small satellites?

NASA is eyeing use of small, low-cost, powerful satellites for atmospheric or Earth science, communications, or other space-born applications.

For example, work is already underway on the Edison Demonstration of Smallsat Networks (EDSN) mission, says Petro. The EDSN effort consists of a loose formation of eight identical cubesats in orbit, each able to cross-link communicate with each other to perform space weather monitoring duties.

Magic dust

The three PhoneSats that were orbited earlier this year signaled “the first baby step,” says Bruce Yost, the program manager for NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

“The PhoneSat 2.4 will be at a higher altitude and stay in space for a couple of years before reentering,” Yost adds. “So we’ll be able to start collecting data on the radiation effects on the satellite and see if we run into anything that causes problems.”

Yost says where the real “magic dust” of PhoneSats comes into play is how you program them. “That is, what applications can you run on them to make them useful. We’re adding more and more complexity into the PhoneSats.”

To that end, PhoneSats and the applications they are imbued with can lead to new ways to interact with and explore space, Yost observes. “You can approach problems in a more distributed fashion. So it’s an architectural shift, the concept of inexpensive but lots of small probes.”

NASA’s Petro sees another value in pushing forward on small satellites.

“It used to be that kids growing up wanted to be an astronaut. I think we might be seeing kids saying, what they want to do is build a spacecraft. The idea here is that they really can do that,” Petro says. “They can get together with a few other people to build and fly a spacecraft. Some students coming out of college as new hires have already built and flown a satellite…that’s a whole new notion, one that was not possible even 10 years ago,” he concludes.