Next week Earth
will rumble and the night will light up as a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launches
from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying new NASA technology. That includes a
technology demonstration from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena,
California, to improve deep space navigation, as well as other instruments to
benefit spacecraft design and climate research. Here are a few things to know
about the technologies and their host satellites:
An Atomic Clock for Self-Driving Spacecraft
What if a
spacecraft could fly itself? A team at JPL is trying to make those sci-fi
dreams a reality by launching a small instrument with big implications. NASA’s
Deep Space Atomic Clock is similar to the atomic clocks found in GPS satellites
but 50 times more stable. The technology will be a critical part of onboard
navigation systems for future spacecraft and will work like the GPS you have in
The Department of Defense (DoD) Space Test Program-2 (STP-2) mission, managed by the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), will deliver 24 satellites to space on the DoD’s first ever SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch vehicle.
a leap forward from today’s space travel, which doesn’t benefit from the GPS
system used to navigate on Earth. Instead, human navigators guide spacecraft using
signals that can take from minutes to hours to deliver directions. If the clock’s
one-year technology demonstration goes well, future Deep Space Atomic Clocks could
guide humans to Mars, even providing them GPS on the surface.
Test Bed satellite that hosts the Deep Space Atomic Clock is expected to be released
into orbit about 11/2 hours after launch. Mission
managers anticipate it will take around four to seven weeks after launch for
the clock to be fully powered on and several months before scientists can
analyze its performance.
Weather and Climate-Observing Satellites
A flock of six
satellites will fly over the tropics, getting a birds-eye view of climate
change and weather patterns by measuring vital data such as temperature and
water vapor in the atmosphere. COSMIC-2 – short for Constellation
Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate – is a joint mission
between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Taiwan’s
Ministry of Science and Technology, a summer sequel to the COSMIC weather and
climate satellites that launched in 2006. JPL engineers made the radio occultation
receiver for COSMIC-2, which will let the satellites measure humidity and air
temperature closer to the ground and with more accuracy than previous
satellites are expected to deploy shortly after the Orbital Test Bed satellite.
JPL’s Grand Phaeton Finale
Mast Dynamics Central Assembly (PCA) is a small, cube-like accelerometer that
measures the vibrations of a spacecraft’s mast, which is similar to the mast of
a ship. Built 10 years ago as the first project in JPL’s Phaeton program, a
training ground for recently-graduated engineers, the instrument will take its
very first journey into space aboard the Air Force Research Laboratory’s
Demonstration and Science Experiments (DSX) mission.
DSX will study
how spacecraft withstand the harsh radiation of medium-Earth orbit. At the same
time, the accelerometer will measure how antennas and masts weather the
conditions of space, information that will help improve their longevity. The PCA
will also measure how well antennas and masts transition from a folded launch
position to being fully extended in orbit. This data will help engineers design
better deployable masts, bringing us that much closer to sturdier spacecraft
that can venture farther into space.
In addition, the
DSX satellite is carrying the Space
Environment Testbeds (SET) mission from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight
Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which will study how to protect satellites from
the harsh environment of space. DSX is expected be released last, around 31/2
hours after launch.
The Deep Space
Atomic Clock is hosted on a spacecraft provided by General Atomics
Electromagnetic Systems of Englewood, Colorado. It is sponsored by the Technology
Demonstration Missions program within NASA’s Space Technology
Mission Directorate and the Space
Communications and Navigations program within NASA’s Human
Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. JPL manages the project.
COSMIC-2 is a
partnership between NOAA, the U.S. Air Force, JPL, Taiwan’s National Space
Organization, the United Kingdom’s Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, the
Brazil Institute of Space Research and the Australia Bureau of Meteorology.
This six-satellite constellation will provide next-generation Global
Navigational Satellite System Radio Occultation (GNSS-RO) data. Radio occultation
data is collected by measuring the changes in a radio signal as it is refracted
in the atmosphere, allowing temperature and humidity to be determined.
The Phaeton Mast
Dynamics Central Assembly (PCA) was developed by JPL’s Phaeton program, which gave early career hires opportunities
to develop their technical, leadership and flight project skills from 2008-17.
The Phaeton Mast Dynamics (PMD) payload was the program’s inaugural project and
was originally developed to be three triaxial accelerometers, meant to study
the on-orbit dynamics of NuSTAR’s deployable boom. PMD was de-manifested from NuSTAR to
save mass, and the central assembly from the PMD system was renamed PCA and
provided to the Air Force Research Laboratory to study the on-orbit behavior of
a deployable antenna on the Demonstration and Science Experiments spacecraft.
The instruments will launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket
as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Test Program-2 (STP-2). STP-2
is managed by the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center and will
demonstrate the capabilities of the Falcon Heavy rocket while delivering
satellites to multiple orbits around Earth. Onboard the launch are other NASA
missions, in addition to the JPL-developed payloads.
Read more about
the Deep Space Atomic Clock here:
about COSMIC-2 here:
about DSX here:
Learn about the
other NASA technologies on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch here:
News Media Contact
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.