KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla., - NASA technology demonstrations, which one day could help the agency get astronauts to Mars, and science missions, which will look at the space environment around Earth and how it affects us, have launched into space on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.
The NASA missions lifted off at 2:30 a.m. EDT Tuesday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as part of the Department of Defense's Space Test Program-2 (STP-2) launch.
"This launch was a true partnership across government and industry, and it marked an incredible first for the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center," said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate. "The NASA missions aboard the Falcon Heavy also benefited from strong collaborations with industry, academia and other government organizations."
The missions, each with a unique set of objectives, will aid in smarter spacecraft design and benefit the agency's Moon to Mars exploration plans by providing greater insight into the effects of radiation in space and testing an atomic clock that could change how spacecraft navigate.
With launch and deployments complete, the missions will start to power on, communicate with Earth and collect data. They each will operate for about a year, providing enough time to mature the technologies and collect valuable science data. Below is more information about each mission, including notional timelines for key milestones.
Enhanced Tandem Beacon Experiment
Two NASA CubeSats making up the Enhanced Tandem Beacon Experiment (E-TBEx) deployed at 3:08 and 3:13 a.m. Working in tandem with NOAA's COSMIC-2 mission – six satellites that each carry a radio occultation (GPS) receiver developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) – E-TBEx will explore bubbles in the electrically-charged layers of Earth's upper atmosphere, which can disrupt communications and GPS signals that we rely on every day. The CubeSats will send signals in several frequencies down to receiving stations on Earth. Scientists will measure any disruptions in these signals to determine how they're being affected by the upper atmosphere.
- One to three weeks after launch: E-TBEx operators "check out" the CubeSats to make sure power, navigation/guidance and data systems are working in space as expected.
- Approximately three weeks after launch: Science beacons that send signals to antennas on Earth power up and begin transmitting to ground stations.
- About one year after launch: E-TBEx mission ends.
Deep Space Atomic Clock
NASA's Deep Space Atomic Clock is a toaster oven-sized instrument traveling aboard a commercial satellite that was released into low-Earth orbit at 3:54 a.m. The unique atomic clock will test a new way for spacecraft to navigate in deep space. The technology could make GPS-like navigation possible at the Moon and Mars.
- Two to four weeks after launch: The ultra-stable oscillator, part of the Deep Space Atomic Clock that keeps precise time, powers on to warm up in space.
- Four to seven weeks after launch: The full Deep Space Atomic Clock powers on.
- Three to four months after launch: Preliminary clock performance results expected.
- One year after full power on: Deep Space Atomic Clock mission ends, final data analysis begins.
Green Propellant Infusion Mission
The Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM) deployed at 3:57 a.m. and immediately began to power on. GPIM will test a new propulsion system that runs on a high-performance and non-toxic spacecraft fuel. This technology could help propel constellations of small satellites in and beyond low-Earth orbit.
Within a day of launch: Mission operators check out the small spacecraft.
- One to three weeks after launch: Mission operators ensure the propulsion system heaters and thrusters are operating as expected.
- During the first three months after launch: To demonstrate the performance of the spacecraft's thrusters, GPIM performs three lowering burns that place it in an elliptical orbit; each time GPIM gets closer to Earth at one particular point in its orbit.
- Throughout the mission: Secondary instruments aboard GPIM measure space weather and test a system that continuously reports the spacecraft's position and velocity.
- About 12 months after launch: Mission operators command a final thruster burn to deplete the fuel tank, a technical requirement for the end of mission.
- About 13 months after launch: GPIM mission ends.
Space Environment Testbeds
The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory's Demonstration and Science Experiments (DSX) was the last spacecraft to be released from STP-2 at 6:04 a.m. Onboard is an instrument designed by JPL to measure spacecraft vibrations, and four NASA experiments that make up the Space Environment Testbeds (SET). SET will study how to better protect satellites from space radiation by analyzing the harsh environment of space near Earth and testing various strategies to mitigate the impacts. This information can be used to improve spacecraft design, engineering and operations in order to protect spacecraft from harmful radiation driven by the Sun.
- Three weeks after launch: SET turns on for check out and testing of all four experiments.
- Eight weeks after launch: Anticipated start of science data collection.
- About 12 months after check-out: SET mission ends.
In all, STP-2 delivered about two dozen satellites into three separate orbits around Earth. Kennedy Space Center engineers mentored Florida high school students who developed and built a CubeSat that also launched on STP-2.
"It was gratifying to see 24 satellites launch as one," said Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division in NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "The space weather instruments and science CubeSats will teach us how to better protect our valuable hardware and astronauts in space, insights useful for the upcoming Artemis program and more."
GPIM and the Deep Space Atomic Clock are both part of the Technology Demonstration Missions program within NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate. The Space Communications and Navigation program within NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate also provided funding for the atomic clock. SET and E-TBEx were both funded by NASA's Science Mission Directorate.