April 3, 2012

ORS SpaceLoft-6 launch to test reliability, durability of payloads in suborbital voyage

by Michael P. Kleiman
Kirtland AFB, N.M.
Courtesy photograph
The SpaceLoft-6 sounding rocket will launch seven payloads April 5, 2012, from Spaceport America in Upham, N.M.

The SpaceLoft-6 sounding rocket will launch April 5, 2012, at Spaceport America, in Upham, N.M., with seven payloads, crucial for future Operationally Responsive Space missions, demonstrating its dependability and resilience during a 13-minute, 70-mile-high trek.

The ORS director explained the mission’s significance.

“One of the ways we prove space-based range technologies of tracking the rocket through flight, knowing where it is at all times in case the flight has to be terminated due to trajectory issues, is to get multiple flights to validate that the systems work in flight. Orbital flights are rare and costly, so one of the ways we are getting that flight heritage is by flying these technologies on small sounding rockets, which is much more inexpensive and easier,” said Dr. Peter Wegner.

ORS has contracted with UP Aerospace Inc. in Denver to employ its “SpaceLoft XL” rocket for the fourth time, but the launch vehicle’s sixth flight on April 5 will mark the first time it will carry strictly Department of Defense-manifested payloads. Like the other three collaborations between ORS and UP Aerospace, the SL-6 mission involves a standard six-month contract-to-launch time frame and uniform integration processes for rapid, responsive and cost-efficient means to evaluate potential space hardware.

“The upcoming flight, SL-6, is going to demonstrate a number of the key technologies ORS is developing. One of the most important is the Global Positioning Metric Tracking System, also known as the “GPS Beacon,” designed by Florida Tech, which we hope will record the position of the rocket all the way through its flight. We will also be demonstrating another GPS receiver, the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, developed by the Federal Aviation Administration and the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, which will independently obtain GPS data and transfer it through the telemetry string to the ground,” Wegner said.

“The ORS-constructed Low-Cost Camera Demonstrator and NASA Ames Research Center’s ‘DroidSat,’ built off of Android phone technology, will allow us to record separation events on the rocket. This is important to us because the ORS-3 mission scheduled for next year has 17 different payloads that will separate off that rocket during its trajectory,” he said.

Two other ORS-provided payloads, the Hard Mount and Isolated Data Logger Experiments, will measure environmental conditions, such as vibration encountered by hardware during flight and recovery.

Finally, the University of Texas at Austin’s Inertial Measurement Unit trial, using commercial, off-the-shelf technology, will acquire data from liftoff through re-entry.

“This suborbital launch allows us to explore the kind of approaches we would take for payload integration testing and flight for other missions,” said Steven Buckley, ORS launch director for the SL-6 mission. “It’s a great opportunity for us. It’s quick and efficient, as well as allows us to do a lot of things in a less-costly environment before we go into a mission that might cost double-digit million dollars.

After reaching its near-space zenith, the SL-6 rocket will separate during its traverse back to Earth, and the seven trials, housed in two different compartments, will land about 33 miles from the liftoff site in the White Sands Missile Range.

Project staff will recover the reusable payloads, as well as retrieve and review acquired data from the brief suborbital trip.

“The goal of ORS is to be able to go from call-up to launch of a space system in a matter of days. We know the war fighters deployed around the world need access to imagery and communications capacity that many times can only be provided by space systems,” Wegner said.

“Our job is to figure out how to get those systems up there – launched and delivered, placed on orbit, checked out and providing those capabilities to the war fighters. All of these technology demonstrations on the SL-6 mission are leading us to that end point.”

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