NASA satellites launch aboard Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket

Cosmic Girl launches LauncherOne into the air for the first time during a drop test in July 2019. Credit: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket detached from the company’s CosmicGirl aircraft around 5:53 p.m. EST (2:53 p.m. PST) on January 13, 2022, launching ">Nasathe 29th Educational Nanosatellite Launch (ELaNa) mission and the 13th CubeSat in the TechEdSat series. This launch, also known as STP-27VPB, lifted off around 4:39 p.m. EST (1:39 p.m. PST) from Mojave Air and Space Port, California.

Cornell’s Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation (PAN), the 29th ELaNa mission, will launch two small research satellites known as CubeSats into low Earth orbit to demonstrate low-cost autonomous rendezvous. PAN is the first CubeSat mission to attempt to dock between two CubeSats and will represent one of the most advanced autonomous CubeSat systems to have flown to date.

Cornell University Pathfinder Students for Autonomous Navigation

Cornell University students work with the Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation (PAN), a CubeSat that is part of NASA’s 29th ELaNa mission. Credit: Virgin Orbit

CubeSats are a class of research spacecraft called nanosatellites, built in standard units, or “U”, of 4 cubic inches. Often included as secondary payloads, CubeSats can be 1U, 2U, 3U, or 6U in size, typically weighing less than 3 pounds per unit, and designed to perform unique tasks once deployed in low Earth orbit.

The PAN CubeSats, each measuring approximately 8 inches x 12 inches, feature a cold gas propulsion system, reaction wheel-based attitude control, and GPS navigation. A few months after launch, the satellites will match orbits and rendezvous with each other to demonstrate future in-orbit assembly capabilities.

Cosmic Girl releases LauncherOne Rocket

Cosmic Girl launches LauncherOne into the air for the first time during a drop test in July 2019. Credit: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson

The nanosatellites will use differential carrier GPS to autonomously conduct rendezvous and docking operations. This method allows precise position measurement to within a few centimeters. If successful, the technology demonstrated by PAN will reduce the mass and complexity associated with traditional rendezvous and docking systems.

PAN was selected as part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) and assigned to this mission by the agency’s Launch Services Program (LSP) based at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. CSLI enables the launch of CubeSat projects designed, built and operated by students, teachers, professors, NASA centers and non-profit organizations. Managed by LSP, ELaNa missions provide an opportunity for deployment or carpool launches into space for selected CubeSats.

The TechEdSat-13 team prepares the spacecraft

The TechEdSat-13 team prepares the spacecraft for flight at Virgin Orbit’s Payload Processing Facility in Long Beach, California. Credit: Virgin Orbit

TechEdSat-13, from NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, is a 3U nanosatellite that carries a unique artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) module including the first orbital flight of a neuromorphic processor . This processor, the Intel Loihi, enables fast and efficient execution of AI/ML algorithms through a unique architecture that, in some ways, mimics the human brain.

Additionally, there is a unique exo-atmospheric brake that will help quickly deorbit this nanosatellite and future ones. Thanks to this exo-braking technology, TechEdSat-13 will contribute to the accumulation and efficient disposal of orbital debris. This effort is also helping to set the stage for autonomous navigation allowing nanosatellites to leave orbit and reach their intended destination on Earth.

Cosmic Girl LauncherOne above the clouds

Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne above the clouds. Credit: Virgin Orbit

The TechEdSat flight series involves university interns and early-career aerospace professionals. TechEdSat-13 was funded by various research groups within NASA, and the neuromorphic processor was provided by the Air Force Research Laboratory Information Directorate.

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