Blue Canyon seeks to demonstrate the performance of small satellites at very low altitudes

Blue Canyon seeks to demonstrate the performance of small satellites at very low altitudes

Blue Canyon President Brad Tously said national security agencies are increasingly interested in space missions in very low Earth orbit.

WASHINGTON — Among the 59 small satellite missions launched by SpaceX on May 25 on the Carrier 5 The rideshare was a shoebox-sized cubesat designed to operate in very low orbit for an extended period of time.

The “agile microsat” known as AMS was developed by Blue Canyon Technologies for the MIT Lincoln Laboratory with funding from the US Air Force. The aim is to test the ability of small spacecraft to maneuver and perform tasks in very low orbits – typically between 200 and 300 kilometers above Earth – where satellites must fight against atmospheric drag.

Now in orbit after two years of development, the AMS will begin flight operations in mid-June, said Brad Tously, president of Blue Canyon and vice president of parent company Raytheon Intelligence and Space.

“What we’re interested in is validating that you can operate in very low Earth orbit with autonomous flight control software,” Tously said. SpaceNews.

He said AMS would be the first Blue Canyon hardware to fly VLEO for a long-duration mission that could last several months. The AMS spacecraft will be operated from the Blue Canyon Mission Operations Center in Lafayette, Colorado.

The AMS carries a laser beacon and remote sensing payloads developed by the MIT Lincoln Laboratory. Blue Canyon used a 6U-XL bus in a configuration with symmetrical dual-deployment solar panels and an Enpulsion NANO AR3 electrically powered thruster that will attempt maneuver at the lowest possible altitude.

“When you’re operating in very low Earth orbit, your drag is increased. So unless you have proper control of propulsion and your flight software, you can deorbit quickly,” Tously said. “So that’s the point, show that we can operate over time, and climb and descend in altitude.”

Military interest in low orbit demos

Tously said national security agencies are increasingly interested in exploring VLEO space applications.

Blue Canyon in 2019 was selected by the Naval Research Laboratory to support a combined US Navy and UK Ministry of Defense demonstration mission in very low orbit.

The mission, called CIRCE — short for Coordinated Ionospheric Reconstruction CubeSat Experiment — has been in development for more than two years and is expected to launch in late 2022, Tously said. Two 6U cubesats will fly in tandem to measure the ionosphere and radiation environment from multiple vantage points.

The ionosphere extends from the upper edges of the Earth’s atmosphere to the lower regions of space.

Tously said Blue Canyon hopes to be selected for a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project that will launch several satellites to study high-frequency radio signals in the upper layers of the atmosphere.

DARPA is now seeking offers from industry for the project called Ouija. It will use sensors on satellites in low orbit to monitor the propagation of radio waves. The agency said studying radio waves in this lower layer of space will help improve the performance of military weapons systems that rely on radio signals.

These VLEO missions are important in many areas of scientific research, Tously said. “If you want to characterize the ionosphere, you have to descend to lower-than-normal LEO orbits, and most people wouldn’t operate there for an extended duration,” he said. “The drag will increase and you will eventually deorbit within a few months.”

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