New satellites which an American aerospace company hopes will revolutionize the way satellite connections function were launched on Sunday.
Just days after American astronaut Scott Kelly shared an incredible image of Greater Chicago, Lake Michigan, and beautiful aurora borealis, taken from the International space station, a new satellite launch could mean major changes in space.
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) November 9, 2017
Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft was launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
Experts say the satellites will drastically increase communications speed using laser technology.
The company, Orbital ATK, is sending its Cygnus spacecraft, complete with NanoRacks CubeSats satellites, to the International Space Station. NASA is hoping that the mission will highlight the importance of small sensor spacecraft to the future of space exploration.
The twin satellites will propel themselves using water, while using cameras, beacons, and laser rangefinders to adjust the relative position measurements between the two devices.
NASA believes that the satellites could lead to “significantly enhanced communication speeds between space and Earth and a better understanding of laser communication between small satellites in low-Earth orbit.”
— Orbital ATK (@OrbitalATK) November 12, 2017
NASA is optimistic about the future of space exploration missions, and how the new satellites can allow for more cooperative approaches between small spacecraft.
“Capabilities in proximity operations,” NASA says, “enable multiple small spacecraft to operate cooperatively during science or exploration missions, approach another spacecraft or object for in-space observation or servicing, or connect small spacecraft together to form larger systems or networks in space.”
The launch of the Cygnus spacecraft carrying the satellites would have occurred earlier this weekend, but a previous launch attempt was delayed after an aircraft was detected near the launch site.
— NASA (@NASA) November 11, 2017
A recent NASA update confirms that the spacecraft is functioning normally, and both solar arrays have been deployed.
Both solar arrays aboard Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft have been deployed, as of 9:15 a.m. EST. Orbital ATKs cargo spacecraft lifted off on the company’s Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility at 7:19 a.m. EST on Nov. 12. A post-launch news conference is scheduled to begin on NASA TV at about 10:30 a.m. EST.
The satellites will mark major advancements in maneuverability and proximity operations.
The Register explains:
Known as the Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration (OCSD) experiment, this effort commenced in October 2015 when a single 1.5-unit (1.5U) CubeSat went aloft to test designs of the two sats going up this Saturday.
The new birds carry a laser that NASA explains is “hard-mounted to the spacecraft body”. Establishing a connection from one sat to the other, or to a ground station, therefore requires a change to “the orientation of the entire spacecraft.”
To make that happen, the two CubeSats carry water as a fuel – it’s vented as steam to shunt them about.
The sats do far more than point and shoot data.
“In addition to laser communications, the two satellites perform proximity operations, which involve manoeuvring the two satellites relative to one another using variable drag and propulsion,” NASA says. “Relative position measurements between the two satellites use cameras, beacons, and laser rangefinders.” There’s also “a pair of miniature star trackers, which point to an accuracy of 0.05 degrees.”
The CubeSats are therefore an experiment in navigation and maneuverability, as the mission plan calls for the two to start out 2km apart and then be brought to within 200m of each other.
New laser technologies could improve space missions for years to come.
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